Mike Houston and ECU caught Cincinnati at a bad time. Entering Friday night, the Bearcats had scored at least 35 points in three consecutive games, a first for them since 2014. With over 600 yards of offense behind a season-high in yards from quarterback Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati rolled over ECU by a score of 55-17.
“Obviously very disappointed in the outcome of the game,” Houston said postgame. “It’s not what we came up here to do. Cincinnati is a very good football team. I think they’re easily the best team we’ve played all year. We made some mistakes that you can’t make against a good team if you’re going to have a shot.”
A week after falling in the national rankings despite holding its undefeated record, the Bearcats thoroughly dispatched the Pirates with stellar play in all three phases, racking up 653 total yards and scoring at least a touchdown in all four quarters.
Little more than a year after nearly capturing lightning in a bottle with a win over a 17th ranked Cincinnati team, the Pirates quickly found themselves in a 35-10 halftime hole on Friday night. Against a decidedly better version of the Bearcats, a program that has aspirations of appearing in the College Football Playoff, it was the defense that kept ECU off-balance much of the night.
Statistically one of the best defensive units in the country, four different Cincinnati defenders met Holton Ahlers in the backfield. With consistent pressure on ECU’s quarterback all game, the Bearcats forced Ahlers into some tough throws resulting in three interceptions for the junior.
One of those picks where run back by linebacker Jarell White on the first play of the second quarter, giving Cincinnati a 14-0 advantage a little more than 15 minutes into the game. While ECU was able to respond with Keaton Mitchell’s first career collegiate touchdown to draw the score to 14-7, Cincinnati scored 41 of the next 51 points behind four total touchdowns from Ridder.
Pitches and catches of 45 and 12 yards from Ridder bookended a 7-yard touchdown rush, the quarterback’s ninth such score in the last four games.
All told, Ridder finished the night 24-for-31 for 327 yards and three touchdowns through the air. With his legs, he added another 75 yards and score, easily turning in the best statistical game of his 2020 season.
“He’s a good player,” Houston said. “He’s most likely a NFL quarterback. He’s in a great year this year and he can beat you with his arm, he can beat you with his feet. When you got a guy like that, it’s pretty special. Obviously he’s what makes them go.”
On a night that Cincinnati averaged better than nine yards per play, the Pirates struggled to manage four. ECU’s offense amassed just 49 yards in the first quarter and failed to log a single pass yard in the third quarter. A Cincinnati defense that was allowing just over 200 yards per game limited Ahlers to a 9-for-20 effort for 87 yards and had him on the move for much of the night.
Facing similar defensive personnel that Ahlers torched for a program-record 535 yards in 2019, the Pirates were without key offensive linemen D’Ante Smith and Noah Henderson this time around. Nishad Strother left Friday night’s game early with an apparent injury, further depleting ECU at the tackle position. All told, Cincinnati registered four quarterback hurries and five tackles for loss in addition to its turnovers forced and sacks total.
“We got to be able to protect him (Ahlers) better, that’s obvious to everybody,” Houston said. “I think we got some guys that are competing very hard. We got to continue to be creative with our protections. It’s one of those things where everybody this time of year, you’re having to shuffle some people around. We’ll get back to work tomorrow and do what we can to come up with a great game plan for next week.”
Just about the only bright spot for ECU’s offense on Friday night came in the form of Mitchell. On the drive that resulted in his first career touchdown, the freshman accounted for all 58 yards of the march toward the end zone and finished as the Pirates’ top receiver with 26 yards.
With 124 yards on 17 carries, Mitchell picked up his first career 100-yard game and the fourth for an ECU freshman running back through seven games this season. Harris was not far behind Mitchell’s effort with 84 yards and touchdown on a game-high 23 carries.
Over 200 rushing yards between the two freshmen, the Pirates ended Friday night with 206 yards on the ground, a number that accounted for over 70% of ECU’s total yards against Cincinnati.
“Keaton is a very talented player,” Houston said. “Just like we talked about with Rahjai a couple of weeks ago, we really like those guys as a one-two punch of the future. Obviously he did some really good things tonight.”
While the scoreboard displayed a lopsided result, Friday’s contest was not free of drama. Up 42-10 mid-way through the fourth quarter, the Bearcats faked a punt on their own 28-yard line in a fourth and seven situation. The play resulted in a 29-yard gain, a first down and paved the way for an eventual touchdown that gave Cincinnati a 49-10 advantage.
Viewed as distasteful by some, Houston and Fickell had a long conversation after the game. Houston would not disclose the details of that talk, but appeared to not be pleased with the fake punt in that situation.
“Obviously we got to do a better job of defending it,” Houston said. “It’s 42-10, we were able to force a punt in that situation, getting ready to get the ball back for our offense. Obviously I don’t think anybody was expecting that, but we still got to be prepared.”
Late in the game, Cincinnati neglected to sit on the football and instead pushed the score to 55-17 with a 75-yard run with less than 15 seconds left in the contest. That run permitted Cincinnati to score the most points and rack up the most yards by an ECU opponent thus far in 2020. Not since the season-opener had an opposing offense hung 600 yards on the Pirates, but ironically, that also came against a ranked team.
For Houston and his coaching staff, it feels like the Pirates are closer to turning the corner than the final score on Friday night represents. Houston acknowledged a slew of mistakes ECU committed that made it easier for the Bearcats to execute and rack up yardage. Those will, of course, need to be addressed moving forward.
“My players — I still believe in them completely,” Houston said. “They’re young and they did a lot of good things tonight, we just made too many mistakes against that team. It’s my job to get it fixed. That’s why I was brought here and that’s what we’re going to work to do.”