Navy is in first place at 2-0 in the American Athletic Conference. East Carolina is looking for its first 2-1 start in the American since 2015.
There also is intrigue about what the game day roster will look like Saturday at noon for the Pirates (1-2, 1-1 AAC), who beat South Florida 44-24 a week ago behind stout run defense, a breakout performance by freshman running back Rahjai Harris and turnover-free outing from quarterback Holton Ahlers.
Pirate second-year coach Mike Houston said Wednesday his team was “dealing with some issues” with COVID-19 testing and tracing. He did not say which players were affected.
The next day, the ECU-Navy matchup was moved from an ESPN-Plus broadcast to ESPN2, a shift made possible by the Cincinnati-Tulsa game being postponed due to positive COVID-19 cases at Cincinnati.
“We all knew this year was going to have a lot of uncertainty around it with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Houston said. “We’re seeing it all across the country in the sport of college football. ... It’s just a different year and we’re all dealing with a lot of stuff. It has not been easy to deal with and it’s a situation we take very seriously in the way we handle it. ... We won’t have a true picture until the end of the week of what our roster is going to look like.”
Harris had 115 rush yards and two touchdowns versus the Bulls. He worked well with fellow rookie back Keaton Mitchell and also Ahlers, who was 17-of-26 for 222 passing yards and three touchdowns. Ahlers also ran for 35 yards.
His main backup is talented yet inexperienced freshman dual-threat QB Mason Garcia, who is 0-for-2 passing with a 10-yard run in one game.
“Every game, you prepare for everybody to be ready to go, because that’s what you have to do,” offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said after Wednesday’s practice. “Mason has made a lot of progress, I would say, the last three weeks or so. He got in a little bit in the Georgia State game, and I wish we could have gotten him in a little earlier and wish we could have got a few more snaps out of him. Just that week had he moved ahead to the No. 2 spot when he had an opportunity when Alex Flinn’s arm got a little sore, and Alex had to miss about a week of practice.”
Ahlers’ outing last Saturday night gave the emotional leader for the Pirates a 6-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio three games into his junior campaign.
Navy (2-2, 2-0) has been one of the most intriguing teams in the country, highlighted by rallying to beat Tulane 27-24 earlier in the season and by last week’s 31-29 victory over Temple.
But Navy’s season started with a 55-3 defeat to BYU in a national Monday night game. There also was a 40-7 loss at Air Force on Oct. 3. Quarterback Dalen Morris did not play versus Air Force, but he was instrumental in beating Temple and Tulane.
Morris comes into the ECU matchup with one passing touchdown, no rushing TDs and no interceptions in three games played. Navy’s top rushers are their fullbacks in Jamale Carothers (team-high 229 yards, TD) and Nelson Smith (185 yards, 4 TDs).
“They were up 14-3 on Temple to start the game and the team I saw in the Temple game was not the team we all saw against BYU,” Houston said.
Navy and ECU both are looking to continue their momentum on defense from last week.
For East Carolina, that is led by the linebacking trio of Xavier Smith, Jireh Wilson and Aaron Ramseur. Smith leads the Pirates with 28 tackles.
Wilson and Ramseur are speedy backers potentially on the rise. Wilson, a 6-foot-3, 201-pound sophomore from Jacksonville, had two sacks a week ago and leads the Pirates with 4.5 tackles for loss.
ECU recovered two fumbles versus the Bulls for a 2-0 advantage in the turnover ratio.
“Ramseur had a really nice game last week, and I kind of knew he was starting to peak and starting to catch up to everybody from the time he missed in the preseason,” defensive coordinator Blake Harrell said. “With both of those guys, and anytime you play the triple-option offense, your linebackers have to be a big piece to that. They have to be a big piece in doing their job and execution and making sure they do their responsibility. It’s one of those games where those guys have to be involved in almost every snap.”
Navy’s defensive personnel has been fluid in recent weeks, including missing nose guard Alefosio Saipaia and star linebacker Diego Fagot versus Temple, but Terrell Adams stepped up in Fagot’s absence in recording nine tackles in his first start and deflecting a pass on Temple’s 2-point conversion attempt to tie the game with 1:02 remaining.
Fagot and safety Kevin Brennan each have 28 tackles for the season.
High-scoring games, however, have been the norm in this series, which Navy leads 6-1. Since a 28-23 victory by the Midshipmen in 2006, the winning team has scored, in order, 76 points (Navy), 38 (ECU), 56 (Navy), 45 (Navy), 66 (Navy) and 42 (Navy) in its victories.
“We have the same little problem with the Midshipmen, too, that we’ve only beaten them one time, and I was fortunate I was there when we beat them (Oct. 22, 2011) at their place ,” said Kirkpatrick, whose first season at ECU was 2005. “We’ve had a lot of good wins here and I can’t wait until we’re getting those wins and the crowd is here, because Dowdy-Ficklen is a pretty special deal. Greenville is kind of a cool place after a winning a football game. It would be good if we win this game.”
After having only 350 family members of players in the stands on Sept. 26 for ECU’s first home game, the Pirates are set to welcome 3,500 fans in the stadium Saturday.