The glare of the Friday Night Lights shines down on Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati this weekend for an All-AAC clash. Whilst the undefeated Cincinnati Bearcats have become accustomed to the national spotlight, the East Carolina Pirates have been lurking in the shadows, deprived of national and international attention in the midst of a 1-5 season.
Be under no illusion, however, that the Pirates are ready to do battle with the seventh ranked team in the nation on Friday night.
“We’ve laid out our game plan. They’ve put in the work this week. It is going to be a backyard brawl Friday night. It’s gonna be a fight, and we’re preparing for that type of game.”
Coach Houston confident in East Carolina program despite difficult start to the season
It is Mike Houston’s second season in East Carolina, and his second as a head coach at an FBS school. Having had success at the FCS level – guiding James Madison to a FCS National Championship in 2016 – the wins haven’t been as easy to come by in an competitive American Athletic Conference.
After a 4-8 season in his first season in charge, Houston’s East Carolina team are 1-5 with their sole win coming over a University of South Florida team that are rooted to the bottom of the AAC.
The Pirates haven’t had a winning season or been to a bowl game since 2014. That 8-5 season under Ruffin McNeil saw them ranked as high as 18 by the AP in their first season in the AAC.
Houston is confident that they’re building something in East Carolina, however, and feels that his team have that winning mentality that they’ll need to overcome a powerful opponent on Friday night.
“They all came to college to play football. That’s why they’re here. You play the game to win. You compete. Everything around our program is built on competing. Certainly we’re buliding a culture. We’re less than two years in to it, but we’re building a culture where you compete daily and then you compete weekly on the gridiron. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. 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. When we take that field, we’re going to compete.”
Keys to the game as East Carolina face #7 Cincinnati on Friday night
Although wins have eluded the East Carolina Panthers in 2020, there can be no denying they have competed this season. They may have suffered big losses to UCF, Georgia State and last week to Tulane – “the biggest thing I was disappointed in was that I didn’t think we played our best” the Pirates have also been on the wrong side of two tight defeats to Navy and a Tulsa team that have been receiving national acclaim.
Their offense, with highly rated quarterback Holton Ahlers, freshman running back sensation Rahjai Harris (475 yards, 5.2 YPC, 3TDs), and a trio of talented pass catchers in Tyler Snead, Blake Proehl, and CJ Johnson has averaged nearly 400 yards and 30 points per game so far this season.
The defense hasn’t had the same levels of success, unfortunately, allowing 37 points and over 450 yards per game on average. They will have their hands full with a Cincinnati offense that ranks 17th in the nation and will need others to step up alongside standout linebackers Jireh Wilson and Xavier Smith.
"Go play, let it all hang out, and get at em'"
Although the East Carolina defense will have their hands full on Friday Night, the key to pulling off a surprise victory against the Bearcats will be how the offense competes with a Cincinnati defense that ranks fifth in the nation. They have allowed just 11.7 points per game and just seven touchdowns all season.
“I agree that they’re extremely talented in the secondary and extremely talented up front. It’s going to be a challenge but I do have experienced guys in the wide receiver room, tight end room, slot receiver room. We’ve got an experienced quarterback. We’re going to do a great job of protection. As long as we can give Holton some time, we’ve got pretty good players too.”
“I think we’re going to have to play at a very high level when it comes to physicality and just playing our tails off. That’s the style of game it’s going to be. We’ve got to go up there and play. Just go at them. Go play, let it all hang out, and go at ’em.”
Oliver Hodgkinson is a College Football writer for The Touchdown. He also writes on the NFL for the Pro Football Network. You can hear his opinions on all things College Football as one third of the College Chaps Podcast.