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No quick start to pending ECU rebuild

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Those who were hoping Mike Houston and his staff could sprinkle some magic dust on East Carolina’s football program and compete with one of the ACC’s more stable programs immediately got a bit of a reality check this past Saturday.

While ECU looked improved in multiple areas compared to last December’s hopeless 58-3 loss to wrap up the Scottie Montgomery era, N.C. State still took it to the Pirates in a sound 34-6 win inside Carter-Finley Stadium to open the season.

The final result was disappointing for ECU and Houston’s staff, especially after the offense marched down the field and looked poised to take a 7-0 lead until quarterback Holton Ahlers lost a fumble on his way to the goal line. The Pirate offense could never seem to recover and what was a competitive game was eventually blown open in the third quarter as N.C. State’s size and depth wore down East Carolina.

The talent differential was most obvious in the trenches, where the Wolfpack hit Ahlers again and again, including three sacks, while holding the ECU running game to 41 yards on 29 attempts. N.C. State out-gained East Carolina 505-269.

“The thing that struck me pregame,” Houston said, “when I was looking over their roster with their two-deep is that there are a bunch of ‘r’s’ next to all of their kids’ (names) – redshirt sophomore, redshirt senior, redshirt junior, all over the place. That’s the sign of a healthy program. Congratulations to them. I thought they did the things they needed to do to win the game.”

The final result of Saturday’s season opener is comparable to when N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren first took over the program in Raleigh. Facing a stable, winning program under then-head coach Ruffin McNeill and ECU in 2013, the Wolfpack got trampled by the Pirates 42-28 in a game that was worse than the scored indicated in Doeren’s first year. NC State went 3-9 that season, but has since posted five consecutive winning seasons under Doeren.

Houston is in his first year with the Pirates, a program that has suffered four consecutive losing seasons, including 3-9 each of the past three years under Montgomery. 

“If one game is all it takes to take the buzz away, then (the fans) are not very excited,” Houston said. “So we’ll be back next week in Dowdy-Ficklen. We’ll see N.C. State in three years and it won’t be the same team.”

HOME OPENER STILL ON 

East Carolina’s athletic department is monitoring Hurricane Dorian as it trudges up the East Coast, but given the current
projected forecast, this Saturday’s home opener is still slated to continue as previously scheduled.

Latest projections as of Wednesday have the hurricane going up the coast of the Carolinas and hitting Greenville with rain on Thursday and into Friday before it moves out of range come Saturday. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. on Saturday against Gardner-Webb in what’s scheduled to be the Pirates’ home opener. Gardner-Webb is located in Boiling Springs, which is about a five-hour drive from Greenville.

“We are working with campus and emergency management on the weather,” athletics director Jon Gilbert said. “We are 100 percent planning to play the football game on Saturday at 6. Obviously we continue to monitor the weather daily. But I fully anticipate to play the game.”

ECU has already cancelled on-campus classes after 3 p.m. Thursday and all day Friday, but the athletic department gets to make its own decision on the football game.

“We would make a determination on the game itself, obviously working with campus and EMS,” Gilbert said. “I feel confident we’ll be able to play the game. But we need to use common sense and make sure we’re not detracting from emergency staffing in other parts of the state, so we’ll continue to work with those individuals. But (class cancellation) would have no bearing. We would make a determination on the game strictly on its own merits.”

HOUSTON COACHING WITH A HEAVY HEART

It’s been a trying week for the ECU head coach, as he lost his father in the family’s hometown of Franklin on Tuesday morning.

Houston got the news of his father’s declining health on Monday afternoon and Pirate donor Parker Overton arranged his private jet to fly the coach out to western North Carolina on short notice to spend time with his father. Houston was able to see his father one last time before returning to Greenville.

The head coach announced the passing of his father, Bill Houston, in an emotional opening statement at the start of his weekly press conference on Tuesday.

“My dad passed away this morning at my home in Franklin, the home I grew up in,” Houston said with tears in his eyes. “He was with my mom. I was able to see him last night. One of the last conscious things he did this weekend was watch our team play against State. My dad taught me how to throw a football when I was a kid. He taught me how to shoot a basketball. He was the one that instilled a work ethic and a tough mindset in me at a young age, and how I did things. He taught me how to care about people, he taught me how to see people for who they are on the inside and not judge them for the way they are on the outside. He was a good dad, and he was a good man.”

Houston will attend funeral services for his father on Thursday before returning Friday and coaching the game Saturday.

LEARNING FROM MISTAKES

Given the nature of East Carolina’s young football team — the Pirates were breaking in several new starters during Saturday’s game in a hostile environment — it was inevitable mistakes were going to happen. 

ECU is hoping the old saying ‘teams make the most improvements from Week 1 to Week 2’ rings true this coming Saturday for the team’s home opener against Gardner-Webb.

“I thought that there were a lot of positives that we could take out of on Saturday,” Houston said. “I thought that there’s a lot of things we need to correct and a lot of things we need to do better. I think that the kids responded very well on Sunday. They were upbeat, they were disappointed in the loss, no doubt, but they were upbeat in the way they approached film and practice. They understand that we’ve got to improve, and they’re motivated to improve. I thought that we played hard for the most part, I would say that in comparison to what people have seen on the field over the last couple of years. At the same time, that was well below our standard and the way we are going to play.”

Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.

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