East Carolina, UCF try to move past big wins

Both teams are coming off emotional weeks and need to regroup for an AAC showdown

Coming off a big win over Memphis, running back Keaton Mitchell and East Carolina will look to keep momentum going in the right direction when they host UCF this weekend. (Scott Davis / The Daily Reflector via AP)

When UCF travels to East Carolina on Saturday, both teams will be testing college football’s 24-hour rule.

The old coach-speak adage dictates that a team not celebrate a win for more than 24 hours to avoid a letdown in the next game, which is usually just a week away.

Not all wins are created equal, however, and both the Knights and Pirates are coming off big ones last Saturday. The Knights put up 70 points on Temple, scoring the last 56 points of the game and throttling the hapless Owls as six different players scored touchdowns to improve to 5-1 and 2-0 in the American Athletic Conference.

“That was one week we played really good,” said UCF coach Gus Malzahn. “We have a lot of respect for our opponent we’re playing this week. We played them last year and it went down to almost the last play. They’ve got a lot of guys back. We’ve got a lot of our guys back. So I don’t expect any letdown.”

It’s safe to say East Carolina has a bit farther to come down after last week. The Pirates erased a 17-point deficit to beat Memphis in a four-overtime classic.

A raucous coach Mike Houston met the media, shouting, “How about those freaking Pirates!”

“You guys aren’t nearly as energetic as our locker room is,” Houston continued. “But that’s what the story is tonight. You can ask me whatever the freak you want to. There’s been a ton of doubters. It’s been a rough week. But the freaking Pirates bowed their back and won a big ball game tonight. And we’re going to celebrate it.”

More than 60 hours after the win, Houston was still talking about the game at his Tuesday press conference.

“It was a game to remember for our alumni and fans,” he said. “You have certain games in your career that you’ll remember, and I think that’s one of them.”

Now, however, Houston and the Pirates need to move on and prepare for a pivotal game in their season. The Memphis win lifted ECU to 2-2 in the conference and 4-3 on the year, and the Pirates need two more wins to finally play in their first bowl game since 2014. East Carolina was selected for the Military Bowl last season, but the game was canceled due to COVID-19.

Following UCF, the Pirates play at BYU and Cincinnati, then host Houston in a stretch where wins will be tough to come by. A win over the Knights makes the bowl path much less bumpy.

It won’t be easy, however. Last week’s outburst against Temple was hardly a good one-week performance, as Malzahn claimed. The Knights have scored 56, 41 and 40 this season.

“UCF has a very explosive offense. … It’s probably our biggest challenge of the year so far,” Houston said.

UCF has a top-five rushing offense and a dangerous quarterback in John Rhys Plumlee, who ran for three scores and threw for four last week.

“They have multiple quality running backs. You’ve got a lot of challenges with the weapons they have,” Houston said. “You put a QB like Plumlee with those skill positions, that’s why their offense is so explosive.”

Malzahn isn’t worried about ECU having a letdown this week. He sees the Memphis win as the start of something for the Pirates.

“They have momentum,” he said. “That was a huge win, the way that thing unfolded. They won it at the end. Teams have momentum late in the year, the second half of the year. I think that’s important. We know we’re going to get their best. They’re a confident team and they’re playing at home.”

That’s a new challenge for this year’s UCF team. The Knights are one of just seven teams in all of FBS to play five of their first six games in their home stadium. UCF has yet to leave the state, as their only road contest so far was at Florida Atlantic.

“We’re going to have to be ready for the crowd noise,” Malzahn said. “Everything that goes with that. I think we had a good road test earlier in the year. This is a conference road test. It’s completely different. We’ll have to be a little bit more prepared as far as the crowd noise and everything that goes with that. But we’ll need to continue to play good football.”

That will include finding an answer for ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers.

“Probably one of the most veteran guys in the country,” Malzahn said. “He’s played a lot of football. He’s scary to prepare for. … You do your best to keep him off balance. He’s seen a lot of football, a lot of defenses. The moment’s not too big for him.”

Two coaches, coming off huge wins, preparing for dangerous opposing offenses — it makes for a compelling matchup. One that might tempt the winner to flaunt the old 24-hour rule once again.