Friday night might just present the most challenging opponent ECU football plays this season. Facing a No. 7 ranked Cincinnati team is tough on its own, but the Pirates are catching the Bearcats at Nippert Stadium this season, a venue where the home team has won 18 consecutive games.
At 1-5 on the season and with two of its better offensive linemen out for the remainder of the season, it would be easy for ECU football to take its foot off the gas pedal. In a little over two weeks, the 2020 season will most likely end for the Pirates and sights will turn to year three of the Mike Houston era in Greenville.
While year three looks brighter in nearly every respect, Houston has built this program to take no shortcuts in its hurt for greatness. That begins with practicing hard every day and translating that intensity and effort to game days on a weekly basis. This year, Blake Harrell’s defense has adopted the motto “bring the juice” and that is exactly what Houston and his coaching staff expect from their program.
“I told them what style of play I think we got to play to win the game Friday night, we’ve laid out our game plan for them, they’ve put in the work this week,” Houston said on Wednesday. “Now for the next 48 hours until 7:30 Friday night we got to get our legs under us, get some rest, take care of our bodies, make sure we’re fueled up, hydrated up, because it is going to be a dang backyard brawl Friday night. It’s going to be one of those where it’s going to be a fight. We’re preparing for that kind of game.”
ECU has not faced a program ranked seventh or higher since No. 5 West Virginia in 2007. Last season, however, the Pirates took a 17th ranked Cincinnati program to the brink, losing on a walk-off field goal after leading by multiple scores late in the ball game.
That kind of performance, coupled with the way ECU played Navy and Tulsa in back-to-back weeks this year, does nothing but breed confidence for the young men on the field that they are not far off from breaking through and returning a consistently successful football program to Greenville.
“We know that we’re so close,” quarterback Holton Ahlers said after the Tulane game. “We’re as close as we’ve been since any of us have been here. We had a good game last year versus Cincinnati and we’re going to go up there and try to pull-off the upset against a good team there. We know we’re as close as we’ve been since we’ve been here. We all came here to change this program and we know we’re a game away, we’re a play away…I think that is what motivates us every single day. We feel it changing, we see it changing and we just got to keep pressing.”
On a cultural level, Houston has instilled it in his players that they can play against anyone in the country. While the results may not always be present on the field, fans have received a glimpse of things beginning to turn around between the white lines.
After being blown out by Navy and Tulsa in 2019, the Pirates played both programs competitively earlier this season. A defensive stop away from attempting a game-winning drive against the Midshipmen, ECU was a botched call away from taking down Tulsa on the road in Oklahoma.
Despite a set-back last week against a solid Tulane team, ECU’s abundance of young personnel is beginning to learn how to be competitive in the American Athletic Conference, and that begins with the competitive nature Houston wants his student-athletes to play with.
“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” Houston said. “I don’t care if it’s Cincinnati, I don’t care if it’s Alabama, I don’t care if it’s Gardner-Webb, whoever it is, when we take the field, we’re going to compete. Certainly you have to go through some growing pains and some things through this. The biggest thing I was disappointed in last week was I did not think we played at our best. Part of that, I think, comes from our preparation. I think part of that comes from guys understanding this conference, particularly the new guys we have, that every single team in this conference is a solid football team.”
Friday night may very well be another round of growing pains for Houston’s squad. Nevertheless, it presents the Pirates with yet another opportunity to get that signature win they are chasing and their first win over an AP ranked team for the first time since 2014.
It has taken nearly two years, but Houston is finally getting his team to play with purpose and intent every single week. That is evident in their ability to score points late in a runaway game and never stop competing despite what the scoreboard reads. To keep up with Cincinnati, matching the Bearcats’ physicality will be key, as will be giving more effort against a team that possesses increased amounts of talent in all three phases.
“I think that we’re going to have to play at a very high level when it comes to physicality and when it comes to just playing our frigging tails off,” Houston said. “That’s the style of game this is going to be. I preach it every week, I think that is critical this week. Then I think we just got to go up there and we got to go play. Just go at them, go play, let it all hang out and just go at them.”
ECU and Cincinnati will kick-off at 7:30 p.m. on Friday from Nippert Stadium. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN2.