No. 7 Cincinnati offers ECU chance at breakthrough

The Pirates have suffered three straight tough losses, but much of that pain would be erased with an upset of the Bearcats

East Carolina will need running back Rahjai Harris to provide balance to the Pirates’ attack against Cincinnati. (Ian Maule / Tulsa World via AP)

At 1-5 and coming off three straight winnable games that got away — at least one through no fault of its own — the East Carolina football team has reached the point in the season in which motivation can become a challenge.

“It’s tough, with so many 18-year-olds, keeping them upbeat,” coach Mike Houston said of his young team. “But I see so many positives. … It’s just trying to focus on the things we’re doing well, trying to get things corrected that we’re not doing well and try to show the things we can improve on than what we did last week.”

In order to maintain what the coach called “a positive team-minded culture” in the locker room, Houston has tried to find different things each week to help keep his players locked in and on task.

He didn’t have to look hard for this week’s source of motivation with a nationally televised game at No. 7 Cincinnati coming up on Friday.

“Having the opportunity to play a quality opponent like Cincinnati is something I’m excited about, and I think our kids will be too,” Houston said. “It’s one of those things where right now Cincinnati is the top team in our league, and when you’re at the top, you’re going to get everybody’s best.”

Whether the Pirates’ best shot is good enough to beat the Bearcats is yet to be seen. But there’s more than just blind hope to believe that it could be.

A year ago in Greenville, ECU (1-5, 1-4 American Athletic Conference) played arguably its best three quarters of the season in building a 40-28 lead against Cincinnati.

Even after the advantage evaporated with 4½ minutes remaining when a Holton Ahlers pass was returned for a go-ahead touchdown, the Pirates still battled back to tie the game before losing on a last-second field goal.

Houston said that the near-win showed his team that it has the capability of being competitive against one of the nation’s best. But he also warned that last year’s result could be a reminder to the Bearcats (6-0, 4-0) not to take ECU lightly.

“When you look at their roster, the same guys have been playing for multiple years,” Houston said. “We played well against them offensively last year. (It was a) tough game. We lost on a kick there at the end. Obviously, having to travel up there and playing on the road will be tough.

“I think they are much improved, even from the team I saw at the beginning of the year. (They have) great depth across the board, so I just think we are playing a really good football team Friday night.”

Cincinnati ranks first in the AAC in scoring defense, allowing just 11.0 points per game. The Bearcats are also among the nation’s leaders with 14 interceptions through seven games and are coming off a convincing 38-19 rout of conference rival Houston — a game in which junior quarterback Desmond Ridder earned AAC Offensive Player of the Week honors by accounting for four touchdowns (three on the ground, one through the air).

“It’s not just their defense but, looking at all three phases, it’s their team speed,” Houston said. “I think they run really well at all three levels.”

Despite an unsightly record, the Pirates have shown flashes of improvement during their current three-game losing streak.

Against Navy, a solid defensive effort went unrewarded because of an offense hamstrung by the absence of quarterback Ahlers — who was unable to play while in contact tracing quarantine. Two weeks ago at Tulsa, they had a win taken from them on the game’s final drive by an official’s error that was later acknowledged by the AAC office.

Last Saturday against Tulane, ECU started well and finished strong, but faltered in between in a 38-21 home loss.

The goal now, said Houston, is learning to put four good quarters together and get equal contributions from both sides of the ball at the same time.

“We have seen progress on the field in that we are highly competitive in American Conference games versus a year ago when we struggled,” the second-year coach said. “We do have a youthful roster. Those guys are going through a lot of first experiences. The big thing I try to do is keep them focused on the important things we preach daily, and that’s pushing ourselves to be the best we can be and to be a more cohesive team.”