Saturday’s matchup between Houston and East Carolina was slated to be an interesting one in Greenville, NC. The Cougars and Pirates both trotted 6-4 records into the contest and both teams were involved in an assortment of down-to-the-wire finishes. It was senior day at ECU for its longtime quarterback Holton Ahlers — the nation’s active passing yards leader — and he was pitted against another accomplished senior quarterback in Clayton Tune.
On paper, we were in for another chaotic finish. But in reality, this was a thorough domination. Houston stormed out of the tunnel at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium clicking on all cylinders, offensively and defensively, and the 42-3 result demonstrated the Cougars’ prowess on both sides of the ball.
Unquestionably, it was the Cougars’ best performance of the season, and the 39-point margin between the AAC foes certainly raised some eyebrows. Here are takeaways from Saturday’s result in Greenville:
Clayton Tune’s second half of 2022 is something else
The Cougars won their fifth game in their last six outings Saturday, and there’s one obvious reason why. Quarterback Clayton Tune is on an absolute tear.
The first half of Houston’s 2022 season was defined by slow offensive starts, but everything changed offensively after a 19-point fourth quarter comeback in Memphis. And when Tune posted a then-season-high 366 passing yards and three touchdowns that night, he became a different form of himself. In Houston’s first five games, Tune averaged 240.2 passing yards and and 1.8 passing touchdowns per game. In the six games following, he is posting single-game averages of 376.3 passing yards and 4.3 passing touchdowns. His 32-of-44 outing at East Carolina with 435 yards and four scores certainly boosted those already-impressive averages.
When Tune is good, Houston is good. The Cougars’ lone loss over this timeframe was in a 77-63 shootout against SMU, where Tune’s 527 passing yards and seven touchdown strikes were certainly enough to win almost any college football game — except the defense struggled to generate stops that night. But Tune has 3+ passing touchdowns in six consecutive games with 360+ passing yards in four of them, and those stats alone make November Houston a completely different animal than September Houston.
Not only is Tune thriving through the air. Sometimes, the senior is called upon to spark the running game. Due to his success in finding openings in the secondary, opponents are often dropping seven or eight players into coverage. This allows Tune to utilize his mobility, and when he showcases this talent, it’s still a win for the Houston offense. Tune has led the team twice in rushing over this successful 6-game stretch, including a 111-yard performance at SMU.
The Houston secondary proved it can be a strength
There was one giant red flag concerning this Houston team entering Saturday’s game. While the secondary has dealt with a litany of injury issues, the unit still looked beyond salvageable at times during the prior two games against SMU and Temple. SMU posted 77 points and nine passing touchdowns on Houston, and the Cougars only forced one stop that entire night. Then Temple, a team scoring under 20 points per game, ripped off 486 passing yards and three touchdowns on the Houston secondary in the following week.
But when an established senior quarterback in Holton Ahlers went head-to-head against this unit, Houston didn’t flinch. The Cougars improved in the health department by returning electrifying playmaker Jayce Rogers to the lineup at cornerback. But still down two Week 1 starters in the unit, Houston needed some of the younger faces to step up, and that’s exactly what freshman cornerback Jalen Emery did. Emery set the tone with a crucial fourth down pass breakup in the first quarter, and he led the team with three deflections in the win.
The secondary spent an entire afternoon blanketing ECU’s talented receiving corps, and overall, Ahlers finished 15-of-30 for 182 yards. What was once Houston’s Achilles heel suddenly transformed into the team’s greatest defensive strength Saturday. Rogers had his moments, Emery showed signs of promise, and Art Green, Thabo Mwaniki, and Gervarrius Owens assisted the aforementioned Cougars to having a field day in the defensive backfield. Now, Houston must make sure this level of execution translates to the remainder of its 2022 season.
Keaton Mitchell breakaway runs are inevitable
There aren’t many positive things you can say when a home favorite gets throttled 42-3 on senior day, but it’s hard not to walk away from any East Carolina game not impressed by Keaton Mitchell. The AAC’s leading rusher is clear-cut NFL talent, and he’s one of the most explosive running backs college football has witnessed in the past decade.
Mitchell totaled 128 rushing yards on 14 attempts for his fifth consecutive game eclipsing the century mark. Averaging 9.1 yards per carry Saturday, he elevated his season average to No. 1 in the nation among running backs with at least 100 carries. That average is certainly noticeable by the amount of breakaway runs the speedster manufactures.
Mitchell exploded for double-digit gains five times in the game, including three runs spanning 20 yards or greater. There is not a more dangerous running back in the country in open space than Mitchell, who once clocked in at 22.6 miles per hour on a touchdown reception this season — the fastest speed by any player at the position. Considering the redshirt sophomore is NFL Draft eligible after this season, appreciate his remaining days in ECU colors because his speed and breakaway ability will be desired by many pro franchises come April.
Matthew Golden is following Tank Dell into stardom
There’s so much that can said about Tank Dell’s talent at wide receiver. The reigning 2021 First Team All-AAC selection is a lock for that honor once again in 2022 after his 9-reception, 176-yard performance at East Carolina. Dell is second in the FBS in receptions, second in receiving yards, and second in touchdowns after recording at least one in eight consecutive weeks.
Dell exhibits sensational route running abilities and a knack for getting open, which explains why opponents struggle to contain him despite the threat he presents in film study. But containing Dell is even more difficult now because defenses need to focus on another budding star at wide receiver — Matthew Golden.
Golden is only a true freshman and the four-star recruit looked poised to be the next great Houston receiver as an early enrollee participating in the spring game. But now, he’s lighting up FBS defenses at age 19. One week after capturing a 44-yard game-winning touchdown on a deep post route, Golden proved his merit again. He racked up 127 receiving yards and two touchdowns on eight receptions, often utilizing his quickness and agility to gain an extra step on defenders.
Golden is the master of the double move, and he seemingly gets better as each week progresses. Saturday was a career-high for the youngster, and his last three showings — 105, 60, and 127 yards — are his best three of 2022. Golden missed nearly the entire month of October with a rib injury, but after taking that time off, he is a different version of himself. As long as he is available and lining up alongside Dell at receiver, Houston’s offense will be golden.
Fourth down failures were impetus of disastrous ECU result
East Carolina initiated the contest with back-to-back three-and-outs offensively. But the Pirates soon picked up the slack and regularly crashed into Houston territory. That’s not what the final score of 42-3 suggests, but gambling inside the Cougars’ 35-yard line cost the Pirates many points.
ECU was granted two opportunities in Houston territory to potentially tie the game when trailing 7-0 in the late first and early second quarters. But a pair of incompletions on 4th and 8 opportunities left the Pirates empty-handed in both situations. Should have they kicked field goals? The kicking game has been extremely shaky for the program this year, converting under 70 percent of attempts.
But in the scenario where kicking field goals is this risky, the offense must cash in during these crucial situations, and they didn’t. East Carolina’s two fourth down failures while still in striking distance ultimately snowballed into a disastrous offensive performance for the Pirates. They finished 0-of-4 on fourth downs, and just because of the goose egg on the scoreboard, they attempted a field goal from the Houston 4-yard line (instead of a fifth fourth down attempt) in the third quarter to prevent a shutout.
And in the end, those fourth down miscues led to a 42-3 result.