On a day that featured a pregame celebration of the East Carolina football team’s senior class, it was Houston that was doing all of the celebrating during Saturday’s game.
The Pirates turned in a lackluster effort on both sides of the ball in a 42-3 loss to the visiting Cougars in what was the most lopsided defeat during head coach Mike Houston’s time at ECU.
“That was obviously an uncharacteristic performance by our team and that starts with me,” Houston said. “Our mental preparation and our mindset was not where it has been traditionally, so very disappointed in the performance. … This is not what they (the seniors) deserve. I hate that performance. I hate that performance. This senior class has established a standard and that’s not the way we play. I hate that that’s what their senior day was.”
Nothing went right for the Pirates, who struggled to move the ball on offense and failed to stop the onward march by the Cougars’ offense. All game, the Houston offense drove down the field with little resistance coming from the Pirates’ defense.
Quarterback Clayton Tune picked apart the ECU to the tune of 435 passing yards with four touchdown passes to three different players. Receivers Nathaniel Dell and Matthew Golden combined to catch three scores and each went for more than 100 yards through the air.
Dell had a game-high 176 receiving yards and a 12-yard touchdown pass that opened the scoring with 10:23 remaining in the first quarter, while Golden added 127 yards and two scores.
ECU (6-5, 3-4 AAC) allowed just 80 rushing yards, but was caught wondering how to best defend the Cougars’ passing attack. The Pirates tried just about everything from sending blitzes to dropping into coverage. No matter the choice, Tune found the right spot to put the ball.
“It’s something we really have to look at facing guys like this because it didn’t work out today,” Houston said. “But you have to balance how many you want to bring and how you are going to cover it up because you both have 11 (players). Times when we would play drop and try to flood the zones, (Tune) did a good job of finding guys open. And times when we pressured, we got beat a couple of times and so it’s something we got to look at how we attacked them today and we have to do a better job next week.”
This isn’t the end for the Pirates, who still have two games to play this season including the regular season finale at Temple and a to-be-decided bowl game. But it felt like the end of any good vibes this team had built up before this two-game losing streak.
Defensive back Gerard Stringer was at a loss for words following the game, and linebacker Myles Berry described the feeling of walking off the field at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for the last time as embarrassing.
“It was hard. It was mostly embarrassing for me and the team. It’s just how I feel right now,” the senior Berry said. “I feel embarrassed, just to end off like that. But it’s not the end of our season and we have to come back and finish off Temple and get ready for the bowl game.”
Houston (7-4, 5-2) scored six touchdowns and all came on drives longer than 60 yards. The Cougars had scoring drives of 77, 68, 92, 61, 75 and 73 yards. They built a 21-0 lead at halftime and never let up while rolling to the blowout win.
The Pirates’ lone score on offense came at the end of a seven-play, 71-yard drive that ended in a 21-yard field goal by freshman Andrew Conrad. The Pirates faced a fourth-and-goal from the Cougars’ 4-yard line when they opted to kick the field goal, trailing 28-0.
ECU had attempted two fourth-down attempts earlier in the game instead of trying a long field goal, yet the chance to score points was the deciding factor in not trying for the end zone on fourth down.
“The first couple fourth downs we weren’t quite in field goal range and we were probably too close to punt it,” Houston said. “Those are very makeable and we have been very good on fourth downs this year and so we went for that early. The one fourth down where we didn’t go for it and elected the field goal was purely to get points on the board. That’s it.”
ECU finished a combined 3-for-18 on third and fourth downs. Houston was exceptional and combined to convert 8-of-14.
Quarterback Holton Ahlers was routinely pressured and didn’t have time to find receivers downfield. Ahlers finished 15-of-30 passing for 182 yards and no touchdowns. Keaton Mitchell was the lone bright spot for ECU as he played like himself and picked up his fifth straight game with more than 100 rushing yards. He finished with 128 yards on the ground.
A loss to Cincinnati the week before was the dagger to the Pirates’ hopes of playing in the American Athletic Conference championship game. And while the players and coaches didn’t say that the loss to the Bearcats led to the uncharacteristic performance against Houston, it did seem to play a role.
“You want to say it doesn’t, I didn’t feel that during the week at all, but looking back I guess it had to,” Ahlers said. “We clearly weren’t ourselves today. It was tough to play out there and that fourth quarter, to walk off the field one last time, it was tough.”
ECU travels to Temple for a 1 p.m. start on Saturday in the final game of the regular season.
Patrick Mason can be reached via email at email@example.com.