GAMEDAY: ECU starts in AAC at Navy
BY RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector
Saturday, September 14, 2019
Mike Houston didn't celebrate too long after his first victory as East Carolina's football coach, partly because he knew what was ahead in this week's trip trip to Navy.
ECU (1-1) and Navy (1-0) play their respective first American Athletic Conference game of the season today in a 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. They each won three games overall in 2018, making this matchup extra important for momentum during the first month of this year.
Beyond the given of trying to slow Navy's wishbone triple-option offense that features a slew of running backs and a quarterback capable of long runs at any time in Malcolm Perry, there is somewhat of an unknown with the new-look Pirates and where they stack up in the league after three straight campaigns as largely an AAC East pushover.
Navy is a favored over ECU by about a touchdown and has a 5-1 all-time advantage in the series that began in 2006, winning three straight from 2012-16 thanks to an average scoring output of 55.6 points per game.
"There is no doubt that we will a see pretty drastic increase in competition this week in going to Navy," said Houston, whose Pirates showed off physical intentions of their own in racking up 365 rushing yards and five ground scores a week ago in a 48-9 rout of Gardner-Webb at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. "Navy had last week off after its opening weekend win over Holy Cross (45-7), so we have a one-game sampling of them right now."
The Midshipmen come in with the No. 1 rushing offense in the country. They used 14 different ball-carriers in Week 1, totaling 428 yards and six touchdowns on 67 carries. Perry was 6-of-9 as a passer for 103 yards.
Talk all week has been about ECU's defense versus Navy's offense.
The Pirate defense is led by the stout starting linebacking duo of Xavier Smith (team-high 17 tackles) and Bruce Bivens, who has 11 tackles and one sack. Freshman cornerback Ja'Quan McMillian also showed off his big-play potential when he grabbed an interception versus Gardner-Webb.
"We have to be sound and disciplined and play hard, and that's real football right there," Bivens said of facing Navy, which beat ECU 66-31 in 2016 in their last meeting. "It can't get any better than that, if you say that you are a football player."
Another key player for the Pirates will be outside bandit linebacker and first-year starter Gerard Stringer, a rangy sophomore who has 11 tackles and, like McMillian, snared his first-career INT in pass coverage last Saturday.
Navy fullback Nelson Smith showed against Holy Cross that he is poised to be a workhorse rusher for the Middies this year. The 5-foot-9, 218-pounder carried the ball 19 times for 96 yards and three touchdowns.
Slot back CJ Williams had 91 yards and a TD. Perry, a senior, was limited to 10 carries for 28 yards and a touchdown.
Perry's 2018 season, when Navy finished 3-10 after totaling 35 wins from 2014-18, was highlighted by three straight 100-yard rushing games to begin the campaign. Late in 2017, he ran for a career-high 282 yards against SMU.
"I played against one (wishbone) team in high school, but obviously that was not as intense as Navy," Bivens said. "It's different. We are getting ready to play a physical football team, so of course we had to change our intensity."
The Pirates' lone victory over the Midshipmen was in 2011 in Annapolis, Md., when ECU QB Dominique Davis had a career game in connecting on 40-of-45 passes for 372 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Navy ran 51 times for 284 yards, an average of 5.5 yards per rush.
Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers will lead the East Carolina offense today. He has one touchdown pass this year compared to two interceptions. He accounted for three total TDs versus the Bulldogs thanks to his 10 carries for 78 yards and two scores.
Ahlers' favorite target through two games is fellow sophomore Blake Proehl, who caught seven passes for 68 yards a touchdown a week ago.
"Having big wins like that is definitely great for your program and your morale, so I'm sure their spirits are up," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "We are looking forward to a great game and are excited to be at home."
Navy had three sacks versus Holy Cross. All-AAC linebacker candidate Diego Fagot had seven solo and nine total tackles.
At the forefront of players looking to shed Midshipmen linebackers will be ECU lead running back Darius Pinnix, who last Saturday cruised to two touchdowns and a career-high 134 yards. Ahlers has 89 rushing yards for the season, and a breakout fourth quarter versus Gardner-Webb gave freshman back Demetrius Mauney an average of 52.0 yards per game.
With Navy coming off a bye week and Niumatalolo's staff featuring four defensive coaches who are in their first year in Annapolis, Houston said in-game coaching and adjustments will be key this afternoon. Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry came over from Kennesaw State.
"I'm sure that they have rededicated a lot of things this offseason to get them going," Houston said. "It's going to be a deal where we really have to gauge what we see in the first quarter and kind of make adjustments and go from there. We do have to maximize our possessions, and the thing you can't do is turn it over and get in a bunch of three-and-outs."
Contact Ronnie Woodward at firstname.lastname@example.org, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.