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2021 Week 8 Preview: East Carolina Pirates @ Houston Cougars

Bowl eligibility is on the line for the Cougars when the Pirates visit TDECU Stadium.

NCAA Football: Houston at East Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, October 23 at 4:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPNU
  • Location: TDECU Stadium — Houston, TX
  • Spread: Houston (-13)
  • ESPN FPI: Houston has 87.5% chance to win
  • All-time series: Series tied, 7-7
  • Last meeting: Houston 42, East Carolina 20 — October 13, 2018

Setting the scene

It’s the series tiebreaker and a rematch of the 2009 C-USA Championship Game.

At .500 midway through the season, this East Carolina team is on track for its best finish since its inaugural season in the AAC in 2014. The Pirates haven’t gone bowling in quite some time, but they will have the opportunity to move one step closer and notch the greatest win of the Mike Houston era Saturday... in Houston. The Cougars are on their longest win streak since 2018 with five consecutive victories in the books, and they attack with one of the most ferocious defenses in the country. Ranked 11th nationally in scoring defense, Houston hopes to prevent TDs by ECU at TDECU Stadium in an AAC clash this Saturday.


Houston Cougars outlook

Houston is playing its best football of the Dana Holgorsen era. In the AAC opener against Navy, the Cougars changed gears in the second half and they haven’t looked back. Houston is one of three unbeaten squads in AAC play, in the midst of a 5-game win streak prior to its Week 7 bye.

After a midseason refresh, Houston hopes to establish “Sack Avenue” in East Carolina’s backfield. That street accompanied Tulane in the team’s prior outing, and the Cougars registered eight sacks in that 40-22 victory. Houston’s disruptive defensive line has caused problems for opposing blockers, and five different defensive linemen have at least 3.0 sacks on the season. Overall, the Cougars are situated at third in the country in sacks per game at 4.2, which does not bode well for a Pirates team yielding 3.7 per contest — ranking in the FBS’s bottom 10.

East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers has attempted at least 50 passes seven different times in his career. With his amount of dropbacks, Houston’s elite pass rush will play a major role, as well as the Cougars’ defensive backs. The cornerback tandem Damarion Williams and Marcus Jones will be tasked with blanketing the Pirates receivers in an offense which airs it out on the regular. Williams and Jones are performing at a high level this year and the Cougars’ secondary has only allowed five passing touchdowns through six games due to their presence.

On the offensive side of the ball, Houston is figuring itself out with consecutive 40-point outings. The Cougars are developing a star-in-the-making in true freshman halfback Alton McCaskill, who has been a touchdown machine since getting acquainted into the lineup. McCaskill contributed nine touchdowns in the prior five weeks, and he surpassed the 90-yard rushing mark for his second time of his collegiate career against Tulane. Other backs such as Mulbah Carr and Ta’Zhawn Henry will get involved, but McCaskill’s patience and ability to shed tacklers with ease make him the focal point of Houston’s ground attack.

The aerial attack is also seeing improved play from quarterback Clayton Tune. The third year starter is connecting on 69.7 percent of attempts this year, displaying a major upgrade after posting a 59.6 completion rate in 2020. Tune is maturing into making smarter throws, and Houston’s offense is seeing a considerable boost with his efficiency. Over the past three AAC victories, Tune has six touchdown passes to just one interception on an average of 262 passing yards per game. He has build noticeable rapport with his receivers — noticeably No. 1 wide receiver Nathaniel Dell (35 receptions, 477 yards) and tight end Christian Trahan (17 receptions, 193 yards). Dell suffered an apparent hand injury in the Tulane game but returned in the second half. With the injury behind him, he should be ready for a monstrous performance against East Carolina’s 124th ranked passing defense.


East Carolina Pirates outlook

Just like Houston, East Carolina enters Week 8 fresh off a midseason respite. The Pirates’ last outing at UCF was certainly one they’d love to have back, and it was oddly reminiscent of the South Carolina game. For the second time this season, East Carolina held its opponent to single digit first half points, 20 points in total, and lost a heartbreaker.

With the Pirates holding opponents to 20 points in two of the team’s three losses, the is no question that the defense made significant strides this season. Poor defensive play became an unwanted tradition at ECU, and the program fielded a scoring defense ranked lower than 100 every year from 2016-20.

This year, East Carolina is only letting up 28 points per game. While the 458 yards allowed per game certainly leaves more to be desired, the Pirates create havoc plays and turnovers at a high rate. Only 10 FBS teams stir up more takeaways per outing than ECU, and many of those takeaways can be attributed to star cornerback Ja’Quan McMillan. All-American potential is there for the sophomore standout, who currently is tied for the nation’s lead with four interceptions. McMillan also has broken up more passes than any other defender in college football. Saturday presents an intriguing matchup with Cougars’ star wideout Nathaniel Dell, and the Pirates’ leading tackler will look to add to his impressive 2021 résumé against challenging competition.

Offensively, East Carolina tends to oscillate between a team that struggles to break 20 points and a team that drops six touchdowns on defenses. Through two games of AAC play, we saw the struggles in the 20-16 loss to UCF, but the 52-29 triumph over Tulane proved the explosiveness resides within the offense. What was the major difference between those showings?

The run game is a defining factor in the Pirates’ offensive output. The Tulane victory featured 222 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns on 15 carries from Keaton Mitchell, but the halfback only tallied 65 yards on 17 attempts at UCF. ECU is 3-0 this season when Mitchell surpasses 120 yards but 0-3 when he accumulates fewer than 70. Thus, the freshman back has his sights set on escaping for a breakaway run or two to open up the offense for Holton Ahlers and the passing game.

In his fourth year as the Pirates’ starter, Ahlers is still fighting to enter the AAC’s upper echelon of quarterbacks. But first, the longtime staple of the offense must limit his interception numbers as he currently owns a TD-to-INT ratio of 8-to-6. Ahlers is gifted with a rocket arm and the lefty delivers several ‘wow’ throws per game. In 2018 and 2019, he established himself as a fearless scrambler, but Ahlers is remaining in the pocket more often as his college career progresses. It may be in the quarterback’s best interest to test screens and quick slants at a higher frequency this week because Houston’s sack numbers and East Carolina’s pass protection stats aren’t a favorable combination for the Pirates.


Prediction

The two things to focus on when making this prediction involve (1) Houston’s defensive line vs. East Carolina’s offensive line, and (2) the Cougars’ passing offense vs. the Pirates’ passing defense. In the trenches, the Houston defensive linemen have presented nightmares to several AAC offensive lines and the Pirates have yet to figure out the pass protection. This facet of the game is how Houston can limit ECU’s offense from generating momentum, and the Pirates will face recurring down-and-distance scenarios after trips to Sack Avenue.

On the other hand, while McMillan has done an excellent job in man coverage this season, teams are still totaling impressive passing numbers on this East Carolina defense as a whole. Clayton Tune has kept things on the efficient side lately, often finding check downs near the sideline and surveying coverages before initiating the highest probability throws. If Tune retains his risk averse style of play, Nathaniel Dell, Jeremy Singleton, KeSean Carter, and the Houston receiving corps could produce massive numbers at TDECU Stadium this weekend. The Pirates are turnover hawks, but recording stops through the air has been an issue on defense throughout the year.

If Houston prevails in the aforementioned aspects, this game should be a comfortable win for the red-hot Cougars. Houston extends its streak to six and claims bowl eligibility — the traditional non-2020 way — for the first time in the Dana Holgorsen era.

Prediction: Houston 38, East Carolina 20