With both teams far out of the American Athletic Conference championship race at this point in the season and also out of bowl contention, East Carolina and Connecticut meet today with sights on November momentum to take into another offseason.
ECU (3-7, 0-6 American Athletic Conference) is motivated to secure its fourth win of the season, which would show an important sign of improvement in coach Mike Houston’s first year compared to 3-9 records by the Pirates each of the last three campaigns under former coach Scottie Montgomery.
UConn (2-8, 0-6) is down to two games remaining in the American before leaving the conference next year. The Huskies’ only wins are against Wagner and Massachusetts.
Despite consecutive high-scoring games, ECU is on a five-game losing streak. The Huskies have one victory since starting with a win on Aug. 29.
“I think both of us are looking that this is a big ball game for our programs,” Houston said. “We both are hungry for that win. ... It’s like coach (Sonny) Dykes and I talked down at SMU, everybody in this league is good. You better be ready to play on game day, and if you are not ready to play, then you are going to get beat.”
This contest will be played in typically chilly November temperatures for Connecticut, likely in the 40s with a low of 31 for today, although no precipitation is expected.
ECU is 4-1 all-time against the Huskies, the only loss in 2015 in East Hartford. ECU then won 41-38 at UConn in 2017.
“It’s going to be cold, but that also is fun,” Pirate senior offensive lineman Fernando Frye said. “That is football weather.”
Although the Pirate defense features some playmakers in the secondary, led by Ja’Quan McMillian (team-high three interceptions and eight pass breakups), Tank Robinson (59 tackles) and Warren Saba (blocked punt, two breakups), a focus for the Pirates today will likely be stopping the run.
UConn is averaging only 13.3 points in its six league games, which is 10 points behind the next team in South Florida, but running back Kevin Mensah is on a streak of three straight 100-yard rushing games. Mensah has 918 yards this season and 2,524 for his career.
The Huskies’ 56-35 win at UMass on Oct. 26 featured 164 ground yards by the junior Mensah and 135 from complement Art Thompkins.
ECU, which is led by linebacker Xavier Smith and his 69 total stops, ranks 114th in the country in rush defense at 206.1 yards allowed per game.
In its last home game of the year and final game at Rentschler Field as an AAC member, there still is uncertainty at quarterback for the struggling Huskies. They have rotated all year between three QBs, starting freshman Jack Zergiotis the last four games.
Zergiotis has five touchdown passes and nine interceptions in eight games played.
“A big, physical offensive line stands out, and Mensah is on his way to 1,000 yards rushing this year,” Houston said of the Huskies, who haven’t won a league game since Oct. 21, 2017, versus Tulsa. “The backup, Thompkins, I think is a good changeup and has been very productive. ... I think we’ll have to really do a great job tackling to slow down their running backs, and I would expect all three quarterbacks to be healthy for this week which means we have to be prepared to defend a very good offense.”
No UConn receiver has more than two TD catches for the season.
The ECU receiving corps is thriving and churning out first downs with quarterback Holton Ahlers, whose record-breaking November has already included 535 passing yards versus Cincinnati and six TD passes at SMU. The outburst improved Ahlers’ touchdown-to-interception ratio for his sophomore season to 17-to-8.
Ahlers averaged 390.75 yards per game in ECU’s last four contests.
While the Pirates came into their bye last week off an encouraging 59-51 defeat at SMU, the Huskies fell 48-3 to Cincinnati on Nov. 9 before also not playing last weekend.
“The only negative of the bye week and when it came for us was just the way our team was playing and trending,” Houston said. “But we had an excellent bye week and I thought I could not have asked the players to be better mentally or be there with better effort. They were very energetic during practices, and we accomplished a lot. ... They are excited for this (game).”
Benefitting from Ahlers’ play has been C.J. Johnson, Tyler Snead and others at receiver. That duo is joined by Blake Proehl with all three having at least 40 catches this year, led by Johnson with 44 for 682 yards and three touchdowns.
Snead has five TDs to pace the Pirates. Ahlers also has five rushing touchdowns to complement his pass game.
ECU’s last win against UConn was a complete victory during a cold night in Greenville in November of 2018. The Pirates benefited from a 21-0 scoring advantage after halftime for a 55-21 rout, finishing with two 100-yard rushers (Ahlers with 130 and Trace Christian 102).
Ahlers also passed for four touchdowns versus the Huskies a year ago.