East Carolina football is finally clearing some of the hurdles that have kept the Pirates from producing a winning season the last seven years.
Another one awaits in the final three games of the regular season, beginning at noon on Saturday at Memphis. There, the Pirates (5-4, 3-2 American Athletic Conference) will try to notch a sixth victory and become bowl eligible for the first time since 2014.
The Tigers (5-4, 2-3) are in the same boat, however, needing just one more victory to extend their season, but only one team will get it this week. The battle for the bowl berth will be staged, fittingly, inside the Liberty Bowl.
“They’re exactly what you would expect from a Memphis football team — very talented at the skill positions, good size. I think their offensive front is very athletic, their defensive front is very long and they’re dynamic on special teams,” ECU head coach Mike Houston said of the Tigers.
ECU is coming off its most complete performance of the year to date, a comprehensive 45-3 thrashing of Temple in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, marking the team’s second straight victory. The Pirate defense nearly pitched a complete shutout, yielding a field goal in the fourth quarter to erase the goose egg for the Owls.
It was another big night for tailback Keaton Mitchell, who rolled over the 900-yard mark for the season and now is all but certain to crack the 1,000-yard mark for the season. He charged for 146 yards and two touchdowns and has 902 yards and seven scores this season, ahead of fellow second-year freshman Rahjai Harris (122 carries, 472 yards, 3 TDs).
Quarterback Holton Ahlers rifled three TD passes in the win and enters the Memphis tilt with 2,180 yards and 14 TDs versus seven interceptions. Tyler Snead (team-high 43 receptions, 514 yds., two TDs), Audie Omotosho (28-350-3) and CJ Johnson (27-387-1) remain Ahlers’ top targets in the pass game, though tight end Ryan Jones (23-260-4) continued to emerge against the Owls with a pair of TD receptions.
The ECU defense continues to get contributions from up and down the unit. Cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian (four INTs, 3.5 tackles for loss, 15 passes defended) and linebacker Myles Berry (four QB hurries) are tied for the team lead in total tackles with 46 apiece.
Up front, Jeremy Lewis (38 tackles, 4 TFLs, 3 sacks), Suirad Ware (3.5 TFLs, 3 sacks, forced fumble) and Immanuel Hickman (5.5 TFLs, 2 sacks) are part of a crew that has stifled opposing offenses in recent outings.
The Tigers, enter the game also riding a high after dispatching a ranked SMU team at home, 28-25. Saturday’s hosts also beat Mississippi State earlier this season.
At the forefront of the Memphis offense is top receiver Calvin Austin III, who also is nearing the 1,000-yard plateau with a lofty 65 catches for 989 yards and eight TDs. Austin also averages 27 yards per punt return and took one 94 yards for a TD earlier this season. Behind him, tight end Sean Dykes (31-516-6) and receiver Javon Ivory (28-401-3) are also dangerous.
Delivering those touchdown passes is quarterback Seth Henigan (2,545 yds., 18 TDs, 5 INTs), and behind him, running back Brandon Thomas has 661 rush yards and eight TDs.
“Austin’s dynamic and he’s got elite speed and yardage after the catch,” Houston said of facing Austin, also comparing Dykes to ECU’s Jones, calling him a tight end with a wide receiver skill set. “If you don’t get your hands on him, he’s going to run away from you.”
Thomas missed the SMU game, but Houston said he expects the Memphis lead rusher to be back in the lineup to face the Pirates.
On defense, JJ Russell has an impressive 92 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, a sack, a forced fumble and four QB hits. Quindell Johnson has chipped in 80 tackles, four TFLs, a sack, five pass breakups and a fumble recovery. Maurice White leads the team with three sacks.
East Carolina leads the all-time series 15-8 and had a seven-game win streak against the Tigers until dropping the last two meetings. Memphis won a 59-41 shootout against the Pirates last season in Greenville.
The Pirates lost consecutive Liberty Bowls after winning the Conference USA championship game in 2008 and ‘09, the first against Kentucky and the second versus Arkansas.