When East Carolina lost 49-24 to Tulsa last Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, it finalized the Pirates going 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference for the second straight year and three out of four seasons.
In the immediate aftermath of that defeat, coach Mike Houston was asked about his first season with the Pirates and their 4-8 overall record, but also what could develop or is needed for ECU to fare better in the AAC in future seasons.
Is it speed? Size? Both?
“The big thing that stands out each week is the size and the speed of the fronts on the offensive and defensive lines in this league,” Houston said. “It is a big-boy league. We all know the skill kids because anybody can sit in the stands and see the skill kids and how explosive some of those guys are, but the fronts in this league are no different from what you are going to see in most of the top conferences across the country.”
A breakdown of the Tulsa-ECU matchup, when the Golden Hurricane came in with a 3-8 record and East Carolina was 4-7, supports Houston’s stance.
Tulsa’s starting offensive line weighed an average of 312 pounds, including 6-foot-3, 325-pound sophomore center Gerard Wheeler. The average weight for its starting three-man defensive front was 292. The Pirates’ average weights were 293 for the starting O-Line and 253 on the defensive line. All of the Pirates’ D-Line starters were upperclassmen, including three seniors.
The visitors used their size advantage to rush for 338 yards. ECU had 75.
“The biggest thing that gave us difficulty was their counter-T, and we just couldn’t scrape over and get into the gaps that we were supposed to,” said ECU nose guard Alex Turner, a senior who is 6-2, 274 and was often matched up against the bigger Wheeler.
The Pirates ran for 135 yards and three touchdowns the previous week in a win at Connecticut. Tulsa held Pirate starting running back Darius Pinnix to 27 yards on 14 carries, and quarterback Holton Ahlers was the team’s leading rusher with 35 yards.
Both of the ECU player representatives for postgame interviews were senior linemen. They voiced optimism in the team’s future under Houston.
“There was tremendous progress made and obviously this was not the way we wanted to end the season, but I told the guys when we were giving our senior speeches that when I look at all them, I don’t see a losing program,” center Branden Pena said. “The record doesn’t reflect who we are and it is not going to in the future. They are going to get the job done in the future.”
Houston, who came to East Carolina last December with an 80-25 career record, also remained positive despite a frustrating final game of the year. The Pirates finished 3-9 overall in 2016, ‘17 and ‘18.
“We are all disappointed in the end to the season, but at the same time when given some time to reflect back on the season, we will look back because Tuesday is the one-year mark of when I was hired,” he said. “A year ago I was hired to take over this program, and yes it is in better shape than it was one year ago. ... The culture in our locker room and the work ethic and the commitment to each other and unity, there are so many positives off the field.
“There is so much positive about the group that we have right now. We just have to continue to push forward and continue to develop and fight to get our program where we want it to be.”