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East Carolina outside linebacker Jeremy Lewis (11) records a sack against South Carolina on Sept. 11 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Saturday night’s matchup against Charleston Southern is ECU’s second home game of the season.

After playing three straight games as the underdog and winning one of those contests, a new challenge awaits the East Carolina football team Saturday as the favorite versus a Football Championship Subdivision visitor to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

ECU (1-2) and Charleston Southern (1-1) will kick off at 6 p.m. The Buccaneers began their year with a 38-21 win at The Citadel followed by dropping a 41-14 contest to Monmouth a week ago. The Pirates are 2-0 versus FCS opponents under head coach Mike Houston, whose previous stints include The Citadel and FCS powerhouse James Madison from 2016-18 before being hired by the Pirates.

“(Charleston Southern) is 1-1 after, I think, two surprising games,” Houston said. “It was surprising they beat The Citadel they way they did at The Citadel, and it was surprising the way they lost to Monmouth. Monmouth is a good football program and a ranked team. I expected that game to be very close with Charleston Southern having a chance to win. They turned the ball over some and it got away from them, but they are going to come in and this is their Super Bowl and they are well-coached and their kids play hard. We have to respect our opponent.”

Respecting the Bucs has been a week-long theme for Houston, whose JMU squad came to Dowdy-Ficklen in 2017 and ran over the Pirates, 34-14. ECU also started its 2018 season with a loss to North Carolina A&T.

East Carolina would have been 0-3 heading into this weekend if not for a 21-point outburst inside the final 8 minutes last Saturday night at Marshall. Quarterback Holton Ahlers mixed in a rushing touchdown and receiving TD to highlight his turnover-free night. Rahjai Harris scored the game-winning TD run with 55 seconds remaining and fellow running back Keaton Mitchell totaled 170 all-purpose yards.

After a 20-17 home loss to South Carolina two weeks ago, the big comeback by the Pirates at MU gave them a much-needed spark. ECU’s game next week also is home versus Tulane to begin American Athletic Conference play.

The Pirates haven’t pieced together a three-game win streak since the 2014 campaign.

“I think the timing is we had to have (that win),” Houston said of beating Marshall in a back-and-forth game that featured 1,210 total yards. “It would have put us behind the eight ball if we dropped that one the other night. Winning it gives you a lot of momentum going into this home game against Charleston Southern. I think it was a huge win for our program, and you did it against a quality opponent who had blown out two teams coming into that game. They’ve won for the last eight to 10 years, consistently. ... You beat them playing your tails off, so there is a lot of positive in the program coming out of that.”

On defense, Pirate sophomore cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian recovered a fumble and later sealed the win over the Herd with an interception at the goal line. He also is second on ECU for the season in tackles with 17 behind only linebacker Myles Berry’s 19.

Outside backer Jeremy Lewis has two fumbles forced and a sack three games into his first season on defense.

Dating back to winning its final two games of 2020, ECU has at least one interception in five straight games. McMillian’s pick last week was the ninth of his career.

“Eligibility-wise, he might be a sophomore, but in our locker room, he’s an older guy,” defensive coordinator Blake Harrell said of the cornerback. “He’s a third-year player who has been here a while and played a lot of football with a lot of snaps. On game day, he always seems to be around the football and come up with a big pick or a big play when we need it.”

The Charleston Southern offense is led by senior QB Jack Chambers, who has his team’s longest run of the season of 35 yards. The Bucs have shown great balance early in this campaign, averaging 152.5 rushing yards and 241.0 passing yards per outing.

This is the first-ever meeting between ECU and Charleston Southern and the Pirates’ second game already this year against a squad from the Palmetto State.

“We have some young guys who are playing very big, but at the end of the day, we have a lot of older guys also,” Berry said. “Coming off that heartbreaking loss to South Carolina, we knew what we needed to do and knew what we needed to fix and we’re going to get it done. That’s kind of how we are operating as a unit and as a team, just knowing what we have to do and being focused and getting the job done.”

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