Red-hot Pirates target upset against No. 4 Cincinnati

East Carolina has won four straight and has already clinched a winning record

Running back Keaton Mitchell and East Carolina will face their stiffest test of the season this Saturday when No. 4 Cincinnati visits Greenville. (Paul W. Gillespie / The Baltimore Sun via AP)

Every week, it seems, the East Carolina football team checks another goal off its to-do list.

There was the overtime win at Memphis that earned bowl eligibility for the first time since 2014. That was followed by last Saturday’s dramatic victory at Navy that clinched a winning record, thanks to a last-second 54-yard field goal by freshman kicker Owen Daffer.

They are accomplishments that have made the 2021 season an unmitigated success regardless of what happens from here on out.

But the Pirates aren’t ready to start celebrating yet.

With a regular season finale against undefeated, fourth-ranked Cincinnati coming up at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Friday, coach Mike Houston and his team have an opportunity to take another quantum leap in their three-year building effort.

It’s a game few believe ECU has a chance of winning, let alone staying close with a Bearcats team looking to state its case for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

At this point, though, the Pirates aren’t concerned about what anyone else believes. According to their coach, the only thing that matters is that they believe in themselves.

“They think they’re going to win,” Houston said after the win in Annapolis. “I’ll tell you, the good teams I’ve had, they think they’re supposed to win every time out, no matter what’s happened. They believe in their teammates, they bet on themselves, and they make plays.”

It’s a belief that began to take hold on Sept. 18 at Marshall.

Trailing by 17 points heading into the fourth quarter and staring an 0-3 start square in the eye a week after letting another winnable game slip away at home against South Carolina, ECU scored three unanswered touchdowns to roar past the Thundering Herd for what turned out to be a landmark victory.

“I think that Marshall game flipped us in a lot of ways in the belief in the system and belief in the program,” quarterback Holton Ahlers said.

The Pirates (7-4, 5-2 American Athletic Conference) have only lost twice since that game, once on the final play of regulation to Central Florida and in overtime against a Houston team that is 10-1 and has already clinched the AAC’s Western Division title.

Cincinnati, however, presents the most difficult assignment yet.

The Bearcats (11-0, 7-0) are the highest-ranked team to come to Greenville since West Virginia in 2006. They rank first in the conference in both scoring offense at 40.0 points per game and defense at 16.0 points per game. Not only do they have a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in dual-threat quarterback Desmond Ridder, but they also feature a 1,000-yard rusher in Jerome Ford.

Cincinnati also has a chip on its shoulder, knowing that it needs all the style points it can muster to convince the CFP committee that the Bearcats are good enough to deserve a shot at the national title.

“It’s going to be a challenge for us,” Houston said. “We’ve got to focus on us all being on the same page and being locked into whatever is called. The film study this week is going to be important to make sure our kids are prepared formationally, alignments and things like that. We’ve got to go right at them. We’ve got to play our friggin’ tails off. We’ve got to play defense the way we’ve been playing it all year. We’ll see.”

ECU currently ranks third in the AAC in scoring defense at 25.5 points allowed per game, Sophomore cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian leads the league with five interceptions, including one pick-six.

Offensively, the Pirates have become a much more balanced team with the emergence of running backs Keaton Mitchell (1,077 yards, nine touchdowns) and Rahjai Harris (557, four touchdowns). The addition of that effective ground attack has helped Ahlers become a much more efficient passer and less of a runner — a factor that has helped him stay healthier at this point in the season than he’s been at any time in his career.

Ahlers, who has thrown for 17 touchdowns and run for six more, is one of several veteran players that have been with the program since Houston arrived, and the coach credits them for the turnaround that now finally appears to be in full bloom.

“Their play each week has made each ballgame bigger and bigger,” he said at his weekly press conference Monday.

At the same time, Houston emphasized that it’s important for his players not to put too much importance on Friday’s game because of the opportunity it presents.

“It’s exciting for them, but you can’t get beyond that this game is bigger than the last game,” he said. “I understand that it is for everybody outside here. But as a coaching staff and players, you have to treat them all as the biggest game of the year. You’ve got to do the same things this week that you did last week, the week before that and the week before that.

“I think our team has grown throughout the year and they’ve learned some valuable lessons about what’s important and what’s not important.”