ECU hosts UCF to finally start 2020 season

The Pirates welcome the No. 13 team in the country in their opener, an early measuring stick for a team whose season has been delayed

Quarterback Holton Ahlers and the Pirates will get to play their 2020 season opener when East Carolina hosts Central Florida on Saturday. (Roger Steinman / AP Photo)

Coach Mike Houston and his East Carolina football team are like a harried commuter chasing after the bus they just missed.

It’s taken several blocks, or in this case three weeks, but the Pirates have finally caught up with their ride.

After having their first three games either postponed or canceled because of the decisions of other conferences or their own issues with COVID-19, ECU will finally get to kick off its 2020 season on Saturday when it takes on Central Florida at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

“There’s been some ups and downs and some adversity for everyone in their lives through much of 2020,” Houston said. “We’ve had the whole start and stop, all that stuff since we started preseason camp.

“But I think we’ve all seen across the country the last couple weeks that you can play college football this year. Finally, it’s our turn. The players are extremely excited. I can sense a difference in them.”

As fired up as the Pirates are to get out onto the field and play a game, fate and the American Athletic Conference schedule-makers haven’t done them any favors.

Their first challenge is a stiff one.

Not only has UCF won 36 of its last 40 games dating back to 2017, but it has outscored ECU by a whopping 141-59 margin over that same stretch. This year’s Knights are ranked 13th in the nation and off to a 1-0 start after scoring a convincing 49-21 win against a Georgia Tech team that opened its season by beating Florida State.

Although it won’t be easy, Houston said the matchup with UCF will be a good early measuring stick for his program, which made significant strides in his first season as coach despite going just 4-8 (1-7 AAC) in 2019.

“(It’s a) tough opponent coming in here, but it’s good to start off with what has been the best team in the AAC over the past three seasons,” Houston said. “You get the chance to start off with them at home. I expect us to have a good week of practice this week. I expect us to come out fired up and ready to go on Saturday.”

As if the matchup itself isn’t enough of an obstacle to overcome for the underdog Pirates, there’s also the issue of playing an opponent that already has a game under its belt.

That disparity, however, is something Houston said could work just as much in his team’s favor as against it.

“I think there’s good and bad to both,” he said. “Certainly, a team with the youth that I have, you’re always going to improve from game one to game two after being able to get some game experience. So yes, I wish we had some game experience heading into this game.

“At the same point, there’s still probably some unknown about us as far as UCF goes, where we have a little bit of confirmation on what we thought we were going to see because we saw them play. All in all, I wish we had played one by now, but it is what it is. I’m just glad to be playing on Saturday.”

East Carolina coach Mike Houston starts his delayed second season in Greenville by hosting 13th-ranked UCF on Saturday. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

ECU might be young in terms of age, including 12 freshmen or redshirt freshmen on the opening week depth chart, but it also returns 86% of its rushing yards along with players that accounted for 303 of its 321 points a year ago.

It also boasts one of the best quarterbacks in the AAC in junior Holton Ahlers, who threw for 3,387 yards and 21 touchdowns a year ago, along with preseason all-conference receiver C.J. Johnson, whose 54 catches went for 908 yards during his freshman season in 2019.

Defense, however, continues to be a concern for the Pirates, especially against an opponent the quality of UCF.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Houston said.

While the Pirates are on their own in trying to find a way to slow down the Knights’ high-powered, up-tempo attack, Houston has reached out to other coaches — including some in the AAC — to get advice on how to best prepare for and manage game conditions with the restrictions necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve talked to several programs, (asking) about everything from game day operations to the sideline to just the feel of a stadium that’s not full to postgame. It’s so much different and there’s been some things that have popped up other places that hopefully we can learn from those experiences and avoid some of the things that have gone wrong in some places.”