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A closer look at East Carolina, USF’s homecoming foe Saturday

The winless Pirates head to Raymond James Stadium for a battle of rebuilding programs
East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers (12) passes against UCF during the second half of the Pirates' 51-28 loss to the Knights on Sept. 26.
East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers (12) passes against UCF during the second half of the Pirates' 51-28 loss to the Knights on Sept. 26. [ GERRY BROOME | AP ]
Published Oct. 6, 2020
Updated Oct. 6, 2020

A look at East Carolina, which faces USF on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium

Nickname: Pirates

Record: 0-2 (0-1 American Athletic Conference)

Results to date: lost at home to UCF, 51-28; lost at Georgia State, 49-29

Coach: Mike Houston (second season at ECU, 4-10; 10th season overall, 84-35*)

The offensive breakdown: Evidently, the Mike Houston rebuild in Greenville, N.C., is as daunting as Jeff Scott’s in Tampa. The Pirates will arrive at Raymond James Stadium 119th nationally in ESPN advanced-metrics whiz Bill Connelly’s S+P rankings. In Saturday’s loss to Georgia State, when they failed to score an offensive touchdown, the Pirates were humiliated at the line of scrimmage. They netted only 50 rushing yards while allowing quarterback Holton Ahlers to get sacked four times. A 3,700-yard passer as a sophomore in 2019, Ahlers has been spotty to this point (43-for-79, 457 yards, three TDs, four INTs), though more productive than USF’s quarterback committee. He has some capable targets including junior Blake Proehl (11 catches Saturday), but he’ll spend the season running for his life if no run game surfaces to complement him. ECU is averaging only 3.68 yards per handoff.

The defensive breakdown: The Pirates arrive in Tampa ranked 72nd (of the 74 Division I-A teams that have played a game) in total defense (558.5 ypg). Against UCF, they allowed five touchdown drives of at least 55 yards, none lasting longer than 2:58. They’ve surrendered 471 rushing yards in only two games, and the next sack they record will be their first. Nonetheless, Scott insists ECU is one of the most aggressive blitzing units he has encountered. If USF’s mostly undersized collection of backs doesn’t improve drastically in pass protection, the Pirates are likely to double their season total of quarterback hurries (they have only three so far) before the second quarter.

Odds & ends: If nothing else, the Pirates have a clear advantage in the kicking game. For his career, senior Jake Verity is 63-for-80 on field goals, and 106-for-109 on extra points. His missed PAT in Saturday’s fourth quarter snapped a streak of 54 consecutive conversions. ... Proehl has at least one reception in 17 consecutive contests, dating to Oct. 20, 2018. ... ECU cornerbacks coach Steve Ellis spent the 2019 season in the same capacity on Charlie Strong’s staff at USF.

Audible: “In my opinion, the way you give your quarterback his best opportunities is by being able to run the football effectively and thus protect him in the passing game. We’re not doing either one very well. And then on (Ahlers') back, he’s got to make better decisions. He’s making some decisions that are really putting us in some tough situations. We’ve got to coach better, we’ve got to play better on that side of the football definitely.” — Houston following Saturday’s loss

Audible II: “They blitz about 80-85% of the time, and when I say blitz, they’re bringing seven and eight guys. It’s whoever can get there first or get rid of the ball first. It’s house blitz just about every snap.” — Scott

*-Houston’s overall record includes an 80-25 mark at three non-Division I-A programs

Related: USF makes it official: Fans will be allowed at Saturday's homecoming game