- Time and date: Saturday, November 19 at 2:00 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPN+
- Location: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium — Greenville, NC
- Spread: East Carolina (-6)
- ESPN FPI: East Carolina has 66.8% chance to win
- All-time series: Houston leads, 8-7
- Last meeting: Houston 31, East Carolina 24 — October 23, 2021
- Current streak: Houston, 3 (2017-21)
Setting the scene
One year ago, Houston and East Carolina was an exciting overtime bout between two of the AAC’s better teams, albeit a 5-hour and 18-minute weather delay prior to kickoff.
This year the series shifts to Greenville, where the Pirates will host senior day as well as the final edition of the Houston vs. East Carolina series as AAC opponents. Both teams already clinched bowl eligibility and carry 6-4 records into Saturday afternoon’s contest. Although Houston has been more renowned for its defensive prowess and East Carolina more for its offensive abilities in recent years, the roles have somewhat reversed in this 2022 season — making this an intriguing battle between a high-powered Cougar offense and a lockdown Pirate defense.
East Carolina has played five games within three points, while Houston has been involved in five matchups which featured a tie or lead change in the final minute of regulation, so these opponents are no stranger to down-to-the-wire finishes.
Houston Cougars outlook
Houston (6-4, 4-2 AAC) locked up a bowl-eligibility clinching win over Temple last Saturday, but it wasn’t easy. After holding a commanding lead for the majority of the second half, the Owls stormed back and took advantage of a late fumble to secure a 36-35 lead with 1:22 remaining. But a poised, veteran quarterback in Clayton Tune swiftly guided the Cougars back to the promise land, and he hit true freshman Matthew Golden in stride on a 44-yard deep post route for the game-winning touchdown.
“We weren’t great in the first half,” Holgorsen said. “With that said, we played a lot better in the second half. We got challenged at halftime, came out, and played a lot better in the second half. Tune felt comfortable in the second half. We did a good job of sorting things of front, blocking for him, not letting them get there.”
That game-winning drive encapsulates how well Houston’s passing offense has clicked lately, and how the Cougars can score on a moment’s notice. Tune and his receiving corps turned up the dial around mid-October, and the aerial attack hasn’t looked back since. The senior quarterback is racking up 365 yards per game in his last five outings, dicing out an average of 4.4 touchdowns over that time span.
In addition to his passing game heroics, Tune has stepped up to become one of the focal points of the run game. He is two weeks removed from a 111-yard performance against SMU, where he thrived on a combination of both designed runs and improvisation to move the sticks. But he is receiving assistance from a shorthanded running back room. Redshirt freshman Stacy Sneed has emerged as the No. 1 back lately, and Sneed enters Saturday off a career-high 143 rushing yards on 11 attempts. Sneed is eclipsing 8.3 yards per carry in his last four contests, so he’ll continue to spearhead that aspect of the offense, while Ta’Zhawn Henry — who recently returned from a foot injury — should see limited time in a secondary role.
“The run game was exciting to see,” Holgorsen said. “Seeing Stacy get out on some of those things, making people miss, that clearly helps what we do.”
At receiver, the Cougars are explosive and dynamic. Tank Dell is one of the most breathtaking playmakers in the country, and the junior slot receiver just secured his second straight 1,000-yard season. Dell’s production is inevitable, and the 2021 First Team All-AAC selection is riding a six-game streak of corralling eight or more receptions. With surrounding talent like Golden — the recipient of last week’s game-winner — and emerging threat Sam Brown — four games of six or more receptions in the last five games — it’s easy to see why Houston’s passing offense is one of 15 in the FBS to manage 300 yards per game.
But football is a two-way game, and while the Cougars were as balanced offensively and defensively as almost any team in the nation in 2021, the fulcrum has noticeably been moved. Houston has increasingly become an offensive juggernaut as a function of time this season, but the defense has regressed in recent weeks. The Cougars ranked top 20 in nearly every defensive category a year ago, but the team’s last two performances consist of (1) allowing 77 points and nine passing touchdowns to SMU and (2) yielding 486 yards and 36 points to a Temple squad which was averaging under 20 points per game.
As suggested by the statistics above, containing the air has been a struggle for Houston lately. Only Vanderbilt and Ohio surrender more yards per game than the Cougars’ 291.5 to opposing quarterbacks. Losing cornerback Alex Hogan for the season certainly contributed to this trend, as did losing nickelback Jayce Rogers in the middle of the SMU game. Fielding a secondary far from the one it displayed in Week 1, Houston must rely on newer faces to contribute to the coverage effort. One of those faces is strong safety Thabo Mwaniki, who has double-digit tackles in two of his last three showings. The Cougars haven’t come down with an interception in three games, so it’s up to Mwaniki and the revamped defensive back room to generate momentum in the pass defense.
“We knew (Temple) was hard to get to — (quarterback E.J. Warner) got the ball out really quick,” Holgorsen said. “He had over 450 yards which is unacceptable. But a lot of it was short, quick intermediate passes. I think our second level pass defense was horrendous. Missed tackles were abundantly clear and unacceptable. Our second level’s got to play better with coverage underneath and tackling.”
Generating a pass rush is another statistic Houston must ramp up in order to reverse the direction of its defense. The Cougars were one of the country’s most assertive defensive lines at the start of the season, and they aim to revert to that against an East Carolina front ranked 21st nationally in preventing sacks. D’Anthony Jones is the owner of Houston’s only two sacks in November, so other defensive ends will be called upon to step up against a potent East Carolina offense — especially as Chidozie “Dot” Nwankwo continues to free up pass rushers with his commanding presence at nose guard.
“From a defensive line perspective, Dot played really well,” Holgorsen said of the unit’s performance against Temple. “He had like six tackles and ate up double teams. (D’Anthony) got back there a couple times... Other than that, there wasn’t a whole lot going on. I don’t think we played bad up front. We got back there a couple of times, but that had more to do with what Temple was doing. They were just getting the ball out so quick and there was a lot of open people underneath. We’ve got to get better at that.”
East Carolina Pirates outlook
East Carolina (6-4, 3-3 AAC) is on track to play in its first bowl game since 2015, but unfortunately for the Pirates, crashing the conference championship is out of the question. It’s been a sensational season for Mike Houston and his surging program with inspiring victories over UCF and BYU, but also, it feels like several wins have been left on the table. Last Friday night, East Carolina collected its third loss of three points or fewer in 2022 when Cincinnati upended a second half Pirates’ rally with a go-ahead field goal and a series of defensive stops.
“Our kids competed at an extremely high level in a tough environment on the road against one of the best teams in our league — one of the top teams in the country — and we certainly had our chances,” Houston said in his weekly press conference. “But the players continue to be very driven. That’s what’s made this group special is year is their drive and leadership.”
But East Carolina lost more than just the game and a shot of a conference championship in the 27-25 defeat at Nippert Stadium. Running back Keaton Mitchell was in the midst of a spectacular performance when he was the victim of a brutal head-to-head targeting foul. Even though the AAC’s leading rusher didn’t finish the contest, the speedster posted his fourth consecutive 100-yard game. In addition to Mitchell, starting wide receiver C.J. Johnson was injured on the final play of the game and subsequently left the field on a stretcher. Both veteran Pirates are essential to this offense’s success, and fortunately for the team, Coach Houston expects them in the lineup Saturday.
“Some significant precautions were taken with both Keaton and C.J. Friday night,” Houston said. “After thorough evaluation, both Keaton and C.J. have been clear to me of anything serious right there... We anticipate both of them playing on Saturday.”
Also essential to the Pirates’ success is quarterback Holton Ahlers, who is rather well-acquainted with the Cougars after first squaring off against them in 2018. Like Houston quarterback Clayton Tune (who also played in that 2018 matchup), Ahlers is one of eight active FBS players with at least 10,000 career passing yards. But college football’s active passing leader is demonstrating an efficiency unforeseen in his prior four years as a starter. Ahlers connects on 68.4 percent of his passes and has clocked in four consecutive weeks without an interception. This efficiency allows the Pirates to rank supreme in the AAC in turnover margin.
“You always want to see guys maximize their potential, and the work he did in the offseason and the way he’s prepeared himself this year has allowed him to elevate his level of play to a point where I think he is playing at the highest level of his career and maximizing his God-given ability,” Houston said of his senior quarterback. “I’m thankful that we’ve had our time together, so just excited to see him finish his career year. I hope Saturday is another great performance for him and also for us, because he’s meant a lot to our football program and a lot to me.”
Plenty of receiver talent is scattered alongside the longtime ECU quarterback. In addition to C.J. Johnson, who ranks second on the team in yardage, the Pirates trot out Isaiah Winstead, Ryan Jones, and Jaylen Johnson. Winstead is of the conference’s most impactful transfers and looks bound to eclipse the 1,000-yard barrier Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Matched up against the third-worst passing defense in the FBS, Winstead needs 71 yards for this feat, and he’ll look to utilize his 6’4” frame en route to a potential third 140+ yard performance in AAC play.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Blake Harrell has done a standup job transforming this defense into one of the conference’s more consistent units. The only time the Pirates yielded at least 30 points in a game this year was in a quadruple-overtime victory over Memphis. The three AAC teams currently in the College Football Playoff rankings combined to average 21.3 points per game on this ECU defense, and in two of those games, the Pirates were on the road.
East Carolina exhibits the country’s 27th ranked run defense, allowing opponents to pick up just 3.5 yards per carry. The Pirates enjoy exceptional linebacker play with Xavier Smith, Jeremy Lewis, and Myles Berry all playing a significant role in limiting the ground game. Lewis, a converted tight end is tied for first on the roster with 6.5 tackles for loss and second in sacks with 3.5. Also looking to ignite the pass rush against Houston’s offensive line is defensive end Chad Stephens, who registered a sack at Cincinnati last Friday and is one of ECU’s more renowned backfield inhabitants.
In the secondary, the Pirates allowed two 50+ yard touchdown passes to Cincinnati, but otherwise, the unit held firm against a pass-happy Bearcat attack. Strong safety Julius Wood has emerged as the team’s primary threat in this position group as the enforcer of five different turnovers this season — three forced fumbles and two interceptions. Pitted against Houston quarterback Clayton Tune who has pinpoint accuracy on medium-to-long distance passes, Wood’s presence in zone coverage will be essential this weekend.
“(Tune) is playing at an upper — kind of special — level, and it creates a lot of challenges for us,” Houston said. “I can promise you that the defensive staff hasn’t slept very much and they’re probably not going to sleep very much this week. They’re working very hard to prepare our guys to try to slow them down a little bit. I don’t think we’re going to shut down a player or an offense of this caliber. You’ve got to try to slow them down, get stops where you can, force turnovers, and do things like that to get them off schedule.”
Although East Carolina’s defense has been excellent lately, the Pirates are still prone to giving up explosive plays — which Houston happens to do a good job of creating. Therefore, I expect this one to approach near-shootout territory, and East Carolina has been involved in games of this nature this year, including 47-45 double overtime win over Memphis.
Houston’s defense has struggled containing opposing passing attacks lately, allowing 77 points to SMU and 486 passing yards to Temple in its last two times out. Thus, expect Holton Ahlers and the Pirates to possess enough firepower to slide past the Cougars’ defense in Greenville. But by virtue of the Clayton Tune and Tank Dell connection, this game won’t be decided until the final minute — as has been the theme in the majority of Houston games this year.
Prediction: East Carolina 37, Houston 35