East Carolina will complete coach Mike Houston’s second season with the Pirates on Saturday against SMU at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, where ECU is 0-3 this year.
The opportunity against SMU (7-2, 4-2 American Athletic Conference), which was ranked as high as No. 18 in the country about a month ago, gives the Pirates a chance for a signature win and to defeat an American opponent with a winning record. They have done that only once since joining the league prior to the 2014 season.
It happened Oct. 17, 2015, when Tulsa came into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with a 3-2 record and lost 30-17. Since finishing 5-3 in the AAC in 2014, ECU went 3-5 in 2015 followed, in order, by league records of 1-7, 2-6, 1-7 and 1-7 with a 2-5 mark this season.
Regardless of this weekend’s outcome, the game will serve as the final competition in the most unique season to date for coaches and players of ECU (2-6, 2-5).
“Not having spring practice and summer training, you cannot grasp the impact that had on our young players,” Houston said. “It was a negative impact on those young players and they were not prepared for a college football season the way they should be. I mean, (sophomore receiver) C.J. Johnson has never had a spring practice and the vast majority of our team has never had an offseason. ... On the other hand, I am thankful for the games we’ve had this fall because we have been able to get more out of this than you would out of a spring practice, because it’s so much experience for guys and you’ve been able to see what a lot of guys can do and what some can’t do. You saw some position changes and you’re going to see some more because of things that happened on the field this fall.
“The great thing is I think you have been able to bring the group together culturally and cohesively. ... There’s been so much good and bad, and it is a special season and unlike any other that I’ve ever had, and I hope I never have another one like this again. We are going to take a team photo Sunday because I do think there’s something to be said with this group about the perseverance it took to make it through 2020 in a pandemic.”
The SMU-ECU all-time series is tied at four wins for each squad. Last year’s matchup was a 59-51 shootout in Dallas won by the Mustangs with the teams posting 1,280 combined offensive yards.
ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers finished 32-of-42 for 498 passing yards and six touchdowns in that game. SMU’s Shane Buechele, who threw two clutch TD tosses in the final 8 minutes, was 33-of-46 for 414 yards, five touchdowns and an INT. The Mustangs also got 157 rushing yards and three TDs from then-senior Xavier Jones to complement Buechele and the pass game.
“They had a great team last year and have a great team this year,” Ahlers said. “Their quarterback is probably going to go to the NFL and he’s probably a top quarterback this year. I respect him a lot and respect that team a lot, because their coaching staff is really good, and I’m just expecting to go in and do everything we can to win that game. Last year, we thought we should have won it, so just change the outcome this year.”
Pirate receiver Tyler Snead also was a star of the 2019 ECU-SMU game, making 19 receptions for 240 yards and three touchdowns. He was one of four players to catch a TD pass from Ahlers.
Snead is coming off another stellar outing with two touchdowns in last week’s 28-3 victory at Temple that helped the Pirates stop a four-game losing streak. His 244 all-purpose yards were divided among 75 receiving, 111 on kickoff returns and 58 in punt return yardage.
“You look at his performance last year against SMU and then you watch him right now, I do think he is a significantly improved player,” Houston said of Snead, a 5-foot-7 sophomore from Raleigh who is ECU’s leader this year with 46 catches for 432 yards. “He’s bigger and faster and stronger and he has that competitive nature.”
Johnson is the Pirates’ leader in touchdown receptions (five) despite only 17 catches this season.
Houston referenced earlier in the week his Pirates might need to play their best game of the year to knock off the Mustangs, who scored 55 points in November of 2016 when they won 55-31 over ECU at Dowdy-Ficklen. In addition to Buechele, SMU possesses the top rusher in the American in freshman Ulysses Bentley (league-best 97.4 rush yards per game) to help guide the Mustangs, who average 38.7 points per game.
East Carolina will honor players who are planning to play in their last game. Given COVID-19 protocols, however, it will not look like a traditional senior day pregame ceremony.
“We’ll have a small group that we’ll be recognizing on Saturday,” Houston said. “It’s a group that has contributed greatly to the program in their time here and will leave here as graduates of East Carolina University prepared to make a positive impact on our society. I look forward to honoring them, but I just do feel for them in that it’s not going to be the traditional senior day recognition.”