Last time the East Carolina Pirates participated in a bowl game, the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy had never been hoisted.
The date was January 3, 2015. The sport was two days removed from its first-ever playoff semifinal round, and the national title game loomed on the schedule in nine days. East Carolina launched this new CFP era in impressive fashion as a first-year member of the American Athletic Conference.
The Pirates earned their annual ACC wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina en route to a 6-1 start and the team garnered considerable recognition on a national basis. They peaked at No. 18 in the AP Poll and secured a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings at No. 23, but hopes of invading the New Year’s Six faded as November losses to Temple and Cincinnati struck.
On this particular January day, the Pirates were tasked with defeating a Florida team that recently moved on from head coach Will Muschamp. Despite a second half comeback effort, the Gators emerged victorious in the Birmingham Bowl, 28-20, and East Carolina’s next opportunity at a season-ending trophy would have to wait. Recent history suggested the wait wouldn’t be long. Bowl season was a staple of the Pirates’ football program and through the 2014 season, they had participated in eight of the last nine postseasons.
Then, the next six seasons, no invite was presented. ECU spun its wheels through countless 3-9 seasons, annual bottom 20 scoring defenses, and suddenly became a punching bag for ACC teams. After six years of remaining stagnant in the AAC cellar, a new trend seemed to prevail on campus.
That trend finally broke Saturday. The Jolly Roger can fly proudly again in the confines of Greenville, NC. In a battle between teams vying for bowl eligibility, East Carolina fended off Memphis in overtime, 30-29. ECU batted down the Tigers’ attempt at a game-winning 2-point conversion and celebration ensued on the visiting sideline. Improving to 6-4, the Pirates clinched bowl eligibility for their first time since 2014 and for the second time as an AAC member. And the Pirates aren’t done yet — opportunities against Navy and Cincinnati lurk on the schedule and ECU could enter bowl season with as many as eight wins.
The overtime victory at Memphis bucked several trends for the program, with bowl eligibility prevailing as the major storyline. It was also ECU’s first win over Memphis since the programs joined the AAC. Lastly, the Pirates shattered the Tigers’ streak of 13 consecutive victories against AAC opponents in the Liberty Bowl.
When looking at the Pirates’ résumé, it’s clear to see how improved this team has become under head coach Mike Houston. ECU dropped the opener to Appalachian State 33-19, but since that Thursday night in September, the Pirates haven’t gone down without a fight. South Carolina defeated them on a clock-expiring field goal (20-17), UCF won on a go-ahead touchdown with 23 seconds remaining (20-16), and Houston slipped past ECU in overtime (31-24).
One theme of ECU’s last three losses — they were all on the lower-scoring side. It’s a testament to the rapid acceleration of the defense under second-year coordinator Blake Harrell. Long gone are the days of teams consistently dropping 50 or 60 on the purple and gold. From 2016 through 2020, ECU yielded 50 points on 16 occasions, 60 points on four occasions, and 70 points twice. In 2021, the most points accumulated on the Pirates is 38 — and ECU won that game, 42-38, over Marshall.
After an 0-2 start, that Saturday evening in Huntington, WV felt like a turning point for the program. The Thundering Herd were in full control from kickoff until eight minutes remained in the fourth quarter. But that final frame displayed the resiliency and firepower ECU possesses on both sides of the ball. The team scored three quick touchdowns and sealed the contest with an interception all in a span of eight minutes, earning its first win of 2021 and most importantly, confidence.
The comeback in Huntington sparked the first of two 3-game win streaks for the Pirates this fall. Prior to 2021, the last time ECU strung three consecutive wins together was in October 2014. These win streaks are authored by quality play from a balanced offense and a balanced defense.
ECU’s transformed defense is stifling opponents to just 24.5 points per game, signifying the program’s best result since 2009. On the offensive side, the Pirates are also producing their best numbers in quite some time. Fourth-year starting quarterback Holton Ahlers has led the unit to 30.5 points per game which is the highest in Greenville in seven seasons.
It took three years of rebuilding under Coach Houston, but East Carolina is playing strong football all around and the team is not an easy out for any opponent. To close out this special season, the Pirates will host their biggest game of Houston’s tenure with an opportunity to spoil Cincinnati’s playoff bid. Regardless of the result against the reigning AAC champion, it has been one successful season for an ECU team that was dormant for too long.
The revival of a once-proud program has finally come to fruition, and the Pirates will be rewarded for that breakthrough on Dec. 5, when they discover their 2021 bowl destination.