Pirate defense stands tall in rout
BY NATHAN SUMMERS
The Daily Reflector
Saturday, September 7, 2019
All football defenses talk about running to the ball on every play, but for the first time in a long time, East Carolina let its actions speak louder than words in a 48-9 blowout victory over visiting Gardner-Webb on Saturday night.
From the onset, the ECU defense created what was eventually a game-long mismatch, putting hands in the face of and bodies on top of Bulldogs quarterback Jordan Smith and cloaking opposing rushers and receivers all night in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. On their way to a commanding 31-7 halftime lead, the Pirates (1-1) put Smith on the turf multiple times and also saw rookie cornerback Ja'Quan McMillian snare his first-career interception and fall just a yard shy of his first touchdown on the return.
Early in the second half, sophomore Gerard Stringer also snared his first pick on a throw over the middle and also returned it into prime Gardner-Webb real estate. Both turnovers set up ECU offensive touchdowns.
The pressure and the turnovers gave Gardner-Webb no chance at gaining a foothold in the game and forced the visitors to a pedestrian 186 total yards in the game, 39 on the ground.
"It's good to see those," ECU first-year coach Mike Houston said of the turnovers, which have been rare for the Pirates in recent years. "We talked about last week (in a loss at N.C. State) that could have been a big factor. It was great to see defensively us get those two big turnovers and turn them into some real positive yardage and give our offense great field position."
Up front, the foursome led by senior linemen Alex Turner (seven tackles, two sacks) and Kendall Futrell (four tackles, sack) played a direct hand in stifling all but one of Gardner-Webb's drives.
In all, ECU wrapped up five sacks and seven total tackles for loss. Linebacker Xavier Smith led all defenders with 10 tackles and two pass breakups.
"It's great for our whole defense because it builds confidence and it builds chemistry and just the trust, knowing that your guy is going to do his assignment," Turner said. "You can see the improvement that we've made from Week 1 to Week 2."
McMillian, a true freshman from Winston-Salem, put an exclamation point on the dominant first half when he jumped a pass over the middle from Smith at the Bulldog 33 and immediately turned up the right side of the field with blockers in front of him.
The two-time starter had one defender to beat, GWU running back Jayln Cagle, but was brought down at the 1-yard line, setting up an easy touchdown for ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers late in the second quarter.
"It was a great moment," McMillian said of the play, noting that he immediately heard it from teammates on the sideline for not getting into the end zone. "I give all the credit to the D-Line. They were getting after the quarterback all night, which forced the turnovers. It was a great experience."
Houston did not hesitate to sing the praises of his potential budding star.
"One, he's got some dog in him, and he won't back down from anybody, whether it's practice or (a game)," Houston said of McMillian, for whom the coach broke his own rule by allowing the freshman to speak to the media following the game. "But he also has that special ability and that special talent, and he's going to be a really good player for us in time."
Stringer's pick in the third quarter set up a similar return along the right hashmarks that drew a late-hit flag. That helped give rise to an Ahlers-to-Blake Proehl scoring throw that extended the ECU lead to 38-7.
One key defensive loss for ECU came early in the game when safety Tank Robinson was ejected following a helmet-on-helmet hit to GW receiver Izaiah Gaithings. He was replaced by redshirt freshman Jireh Wilson, who made one tackle.