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GAMEDAY: Pirates get another FCS home test

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East Carolina center Branden Pena

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, September 21, 2019

An important three-game stretch for East Carolina's football team begins tonight with welcoming William & Mary to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for a 6 p.m. kickoff.

Two weeks removed from routing Football Championship Subdivision opponent Gardner-Webb, 48-9, and after losing 42-10 at Navy a week ago, ECU (1-2, 0-1 American Athletic Conference) gets another FCS opponent and is seeking a 2-0 start to its home schedule.

The Pirates won their first two home games every year from 2012-16, but did not last season or in '17.

First-year Pirate coach Mike Houston, who spent the last three years at James Madison as a rival of William & Mary in the Colonial Athletic Association, stressed this week that ECU needs this victory in Greenville and that Tribe freshman quarterback Hollis Mathis is a dynamic player who the Pirate defense has to key on and handle in and out of the pocket.

William & Mary (2-1) played its other Football Bowl Subdivision game Week 2 at Virginia and lost 52-17.

"Mathis brings them a needed playmaker at that position, so what you’re looking at is we are playing a very solid CAA football team and one that will probably end up having a good year," Houston said. "Most of the teams in that league could compete very well at our level.”

Mathis is W&M's leading rusher with 199 yards and two touchdowns, which is one more TD than his touchdown-to-interception ratio of 1-to-2. Sophomore starting running back Owen Wright is coming off a career-high 108 ground yards against Colgate.

ECU also features a mobile quarterback in sophomore Holton Ahlers, who has three rushing scores and nine for his career.

The Pirates are set to play at Old Dominion next Saturday and then return to AAC play for a Thursday night game against Temple in Greenville before having a bye week.

"We are expecting a much larger crowd than we had for Gardner-Webb (34,118), which will be a great atmosphere for our kids to play in, and it's parents weekend so there will be a lot of people back on campus," Houston said. "The kids talked about in preseason camp that they wanted to win their home games this year. Certainly they get a little extra juice playing in front of the home crowd, and we have a pretty special atmosphere here."

The Pirate offense shined two weeks ago for an easy night against Gardner-Webb -- ECU led 17-0 at the end of the first quarter and Darius Pinnix and Demetrius Mauney both had 100-yard rushing games -- but the Pirates were out-gained by Navy 468-222 for a low-point in September.

Like two weeks ago at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, the hosts will look for strong nights by veteran interior linemen Cortez Herrin, Branden Pena and John Spellacy to help set up big run plays by potentially a group of rushers with Pinnix still questionable with an apparent neck/upper body issue, and he was inactive versus the Midshipmen.

Facing William & Mary, which runs a traditional 3-4 defense, means seeing a linebacking core that has three senior starters. The Tribe also boasts six different players with an interception through its three games, guiding the team's plus-7 mark in turnover margin.

"They have the same guys that have been playing for years, but it's a different scheme and different coaching staff and that is kind of the theme of this season I guess because everybody is in a different defense than what they were last year," ECU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said. "We know their personnel, and this is something because we know what their speed is and what their size is and things like that."

Ahlers, who led East Carolina in rushing in losses to N.C. State and Navy, has one interception in each game this year and he has four total TDs (one passing, three rushing). The left-hander is averaging 167.0 passing and 41.7 rushing yards per game.

Tribe first-year coach Mike London, who won an FCS national championship in 2008 at Richmond and in six seasons at Virginia from 2010-15 went 27-46, described ECU as a possible "sleeping giant" under Houston's leadership.

“We just have to make sure that we take care of ourselves again,” London said of today’s first matchup between the Tribe and the Pirates since 2001. “We need to run the ball and move the ball. … Our special teams needs to be able to affect field position again in games like this, which is always important and it’s another task for us and we’re on the road and looking forward to the challenge."

Blake Proehl caught Ahlers' lone TD pass of this season, against Gardner-Webb, and has twice as many receptions as any other Pirate with 14 catches for 132 yards.

William & Mary's leading tackler is sophomore linebacker Trey Watkins with 22 total stops and a fumble recovery. Cornerback Corey Parker, another senior starter, has an interception, 2.5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery.

The Pirates feature a potential big-play cornerback in freshman Ja'Quan McMillian, who has one INT and two pass breakups.

Inside linebacker Xavier Smith has shined as a starter for the first year on the ECU defense, totaling a team-high 23 tackles and also team-best three pass breakups.

While ECU had a frustrating day one week ago, the Tribe is looking to continue momentum from a 38-10 win over Colgate in which Mathis, Wright and freshman back Donavyn Lester each ran for a touchdown. W&M also got a 93-yard kickoff return to the end zone from Bronson Yoder, who is a reserve safety on defense.

"They are a veteran bunch and the other thing is I know exactly what that level of ball is because the CAA is the top FCS conference in the country," Houston said.

Houston is 3-0 against the Tribe, including cruising to a 51-0 blowout with James Madison last season.

When East Carolina beat William & Mary, 38-23, in 2001, it marked the first game in the series since 1983. The Pirates lead the all-time series 12-4-1, and the Tribe's last victory was a 31-21 in Greenville in 1981.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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