South Carolina is a brand-name opponent from the most powerful conference in college football.
But that doesn’t impress East Carolina all that much. Not after what the Pirates experienced against Appalachian State in their season opener Thursday in Charlotte.
“I’m telling you, Appalachian State is a top-25 team nationally, so we’ve faced a quality opponent,” coach Mike Houston said Tuesday of the Mountaineers, who put a 33-19 hurting on his ECU squad in the Duke’s Mayo Classic. “We’re facing another quality opponent. Everybody puts a lot of attention on them because of the conference they come from, but there’s good teams across this country everywhere.”
There just happens to be a greater concentration of those top teams in the SEC, as the Pirates have experienced firsthand over the years.
ECU is 4-19 all-time against SEC opponents. On the plus side, all four of those wins have come against South Carolina.
While it’s been nearly 22 years since the most recent of those victories, circumstances surrounding Saturday’s home opener at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium give the Pirates their best shot at beating the Gamecocks since a 21-3 triumph in Columbia on Sept. 18, 1999.
At least the folks in Las Vegas think so.
ECU, despite its loss to App State, is a two-point favorite against a South Carolina team that put a 46-0 walloping on Eastern Illinois in its opener last week. The Gamecocks, however, are coming off a 2-8 season and will be playing on the road for the first time in just their second game under new coach Shane Beamer.
Regardless of the records and the conference affiliation, Houston said his team will have to protect quarterback Holton Ahlers better than it did last week to have any chance at winning.
The Pirates gave up four sacks and five hurries against the Mountaineers. Among their seven penalties for 90 yards was a holding call that nullified a 59-yard run by Ahlers and an offensive interference infraction that wiped out a touchdown pass to tight end Shane Calhoun.
To make matters worse, starting right tackle Bailey Malovic was lost to a season-ending injury in the game.
“The frustrating thing is that it just wasn’t one guy. It was maybe six or seven guys one time,” Houston said of ECU’s offensive issues. “You put all that together and it looks like you had more issues than you had. But I do feel like those issues are fixable. Most teams have some mistakes in game one and they get fixed. That’s why you see the improvement from game one to game two.”
As solid as South Carolina looked in its opening game, it also figures to be improved with the addition of leading rusher Kevin Harris.
The sophomore running back rushed for 1,138 yards and 15 touchdowns while averaging an impressive 6.15 yards per carry last season. He’s been recovering from what has been reported as “a minor procedure on his back” over the summer, but he is expected to be back in the lineup for Saturday’s game.
He might not be the only addition for the Gamecocks.
There’s also a chance starting quarterback Luke Doty will be ready to return after missing much of preseason camp with a foot injury. Zeb Noland, a graduate assistant who was pressed into service at quarterback when Doty was sidelined, filled in well against Eastern Illinois, throwing for 121 yards and four touchdowns.
As for which quarterback will start and how much each might play, Beamer isn’t tipping his hand.
“I’m sure Houston would love that, and he knows he’s got to get ready for Dakereon Joyner, they’ve got to get ready for Luke Doty and Zeb,” Beamer said of his three quarterbacks. “We do a lot of different things offensively, so no. I don’t know why I would.”
Regardless of who ends up under center, there’s at least one thing ECU has going for it. For the first time since 2019, it will enjoy a true home-field advantage.
“It’s going to mean a lot,” Houston said. “It’s probably going to be the biggest crowd since I’ve been here. So I think they’re excited about it. It will obviously be electric.
“It’s one of the reasons so many of them came here to East Carolina, because of Pirate Nation and the way Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium is on game day. It should be a great home-field advantage and something for them to feed off.”