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2023 Week 1 Game Preview: East Carolina Pirates @ Michigan Wolverines

ECU prepares to shock the world against the No. 2 team in the country, in the absence of Jim Harbaugh.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl Photo by Chris Putman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 2 at 12:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: Peacock
  • Location: Michigan Stadium — Ann Arbor, MI
  • Spread: Michigan (-36)
  • Over/under: 52
  • All-time series: No previous meetings

Setting the scene

The largest football stadium opens its doors Labor Day weekend for the first time since last November. The Big House has played host to some excellent football over the past two years, as Michigan has rattled off 15 consecutive victories in Ann Arbor. Coming off consecutive Big Ten championships and College Football Playoff appearances, the expectation for Michigan is nothing less than a third-straight CFP berth.

Entering the Big House for the first time ever is East Carolina, fresh off consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2013 and 2014. The Pirates replace a horde of their star talent from last year’s 8-5 squad, and they’ll hope the refurbished depth chart is enough to stun a Jim Harbaugh-less Michigan in front of over 100,000 spectators.

East Carolina Pirates outlook

East Carolina posted an 8-5 record in 2022, solidifying its best season since joining the American Athletic Conference in 2014. The Pirates displayed incremental improvement throughout the first four years of Mike Houston’s tenure, but further progression in 2023 could be difficult considering the offseason departures.

The Pirates lost starting quarterback Holton Ahlers, who wrapped up his college career as the 11th leading passer in FBS history, firing for 3,708 yards, 28 touchdowns, and five interceptions in a dominant senior campaign. Ahlers held starting status for roughly four-and-a-half seasons, and Houston must break in a new chief signal caller for the first time since arriving in Greenville, NC.

Rather than consult the transfer portal, ECU is banking on Ahlers’ understudy Mason Garcia, who has 12 appearances and one start to his name. Garcia’s on-field history is not extensive, completing just 19-of-38 passes for 179 yards. But the 6’5” sophomore will be exposed to one of the toughest challenges for any new starter — facing a juggernaut Michigan defense which ranked sixth in yards allowed per game last year.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Central Florida
Rahjai Harris returns from a knee injury Saturday, after posting 238 rushing yards and five touchdowns in five games last fall.
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Additionally, ECU must fulfill a vacancy left behind by Keaton Mitchell, who starred as one of the fastest running backs in college football last season. Mitchell finished second in yards per carry among 1,000-yard backs at 7.2, and he raced his way to 1,452 yards and 14 touchdowns as an all-conference selection. Even without Mitchell, the Pirates tout experience in the backfield with the tandem of Rahjai Harris and Marlon Gunn Jr. Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 last season, but in his first two seasons with ECU, the 5’10”, 224 pound power back posted 624 and 583 yards, and there shouldn’t be much adjustment as he becomes the No. 1 option.

New risers must be seen in the receiver room as well since the Pirates lost each of their three leading receivers from 2022’s senior laden squad. 1,000-yard receivers Isaiah Winstead and C.J. Johnson were among those seniors, as was tight end Ryan Jones who handled 41 receptions for 413 yards on the nation’s 16th-ranked passing attack. Incumbent roster members Jaylen Johnson and Jsi Hatfield should slide into the top two receiver roles after corralling 340 and 178 yards a year ago. Meanwhile, tight end usage should remain frequent considering the talent of Shane Calhoun. Entering 2023 with 26 starts across three seasons, Calhoun will be a focal point in the offense, hoping to expand upon his 25 receptions from 2022.

Calhoun is just one of two offensive players to start more than 50 percent of the Pirates’ games in 2022. The other is right guard Isaiah Foote, who rose into a first team role in the prior year’s fall camp and started all 13 contests. Foote is the only returning starter on the offensive line, but ECU landed Dustyn Hall in the transfer portal who boasts 25 games of starting experience — previously manning the center and right guard spots on a study South Florida front.

ECU’s offense has been stellar for quite some time, but defensive improvement was the defining factor which elevated the Pirates into a winning program. Blake Harrell enters his fourth season as the defensive coordinator, hoping for further improvement after posting the nation’s 73rd-ranked scoring defense a year ago.

NCAA Football: Houston at East Carolina
Chad Stephens produced a team-high 10.0 tackles for loss in 2022 in addition to 2.5 sacks.
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

It was a tale of two defenses, however. ECU contained the run with fervent success, checking in at 19th in the country yielding 112.5 yards per game on 3.4 yards per carry. But the aerial defense needed work, as it was consistently picked apart. The Pirates finished third-to-last in passing yards surrendered at 291.8 per game but the team brought in a litany of transfers on the back end — including TyMir Brown and Dontavius Nash from North Carolina — in effort to improve that metric. Brown and Nash should help provide depth, as ECU replaces two of its top defensive backs who tied for the team-lead in interceptions in 2022 — Jireh Wilson and Malik Fleming, who transferred to UCF and Houston, respectively.

In the front seven, defensive end Chad Stephens and outside linebacker Jeremy Lewis will be two veterans tasked with slowing down Michigan’s dominant rushing attack. Stephens and Lewis reigned supreme on the roster in tackles for loss, combining for 18.5, and backfield pressure will be the most essential element if the Pirates want to do the unthinkable in Ann Arbor.

Michigan Wolverines outlook

Michigan commences its 2023 campaign with its loftiest expectations in quite some time. The Wolverines are decorated with a No. 2 ranking in the preseason AP Poll, their highest standing prior to Week 1 since 1991. Michigan retains the majority of its major contributors from 2023, but one thing the Wolverines won’t return for the first three weeks is head coach Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh was assessed an internal 3-game suspension amidst an NCAA investigation concerning potential recruiting violations that transpired during the COVID-19 dead period. Rather than name a single interim, Michigan appointed four different interim coaches across the first three weeks of the season, and second-year defensive coordinator Jesse Minter will be the one steering the ship for the opener.

Minter operates with a stacked roster, renowned for both a stout defense and electrifying run game. Over the past two seasons, Michigan’s play-calling in non-conference competition has overwhelmingly favored the ground, exhibiting a 68-32 run-pass split. And that formula has worked to a T, considering the Wolverines won those six contests by an average score of 51.2 to 8.5.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan
Blake Corum earned unanimous All-American honors in 2022, becoming the first Michigan running back to do so since 1947.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Expect the Wolverines to enter with that approach Saturday, wielding the dominant running back duo of Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards. Corum will make his triumphant return to the field Saturday after suffering a season-ending meniscus tear last November against Ohio State. In 12 appearances, Corum rose to national prominence as a Doak Walker Award finalist, racking up 1,463 yards and 18 touchdowns — ranking 11th and fifth nationally in the categories. Edwards shined in Corum’s absence as an explosive home-run hitter, averaging 7.1 yards per carry on breakaway speed. He posted 216 yards and two 75+ yard touchdowns on the Buckeyes’ defense, 185 on Purdue in the Big Ten title game, and 116 in the Fiesta Bowl against TCU.

While the Wolverines rarely eclipsed 250 passing yards in a game due to their ground dominance, quarterback J.J. McCarthy has proven to capable when called upon. He displayed remarkable efficiency in his sophomore campaign with a 22-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and he spearheaded an explosive passing attack on TCU’s secondary, registering 343 yards on 20 completions in a 51-45 Fiesta Bowl shootout.

Ronnie Bell was McCarthy’s favorite target by a longshot in 2022, capturing 62 receptions — 30 more than the next highest Wolverine. But Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson are familiar threats gunning for the No. 1 receiver role in 2022, and tight end utilization remains a fixture in Ann Arbor as well. With Luke Schoonmaker and Erick All gone from the program, Colston Loveland takes on the starting role against ECU.

Despite all the skill position talent, Michigan’s offensive line might be its most loaded position group. The Wolverines boast two of the top guards in the country in Zak Zinter and Trevor Keegan, who both earned First Team All-Big Ten honors in 2022. Additionally, center Drake Nugent and tackle Myles Hinton arrive from Stanford, hoping to sustain the Wolverines’ tradition of assertive run blocking.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Texas Christian at Michigan
Junior Colson earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors while serving as the Wolverines’ leading tackler in 2022.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Although defense was not a spectacular element in the CFP defeat, Michigan was otherwise stellar on that side of the ball all year, suffocating opponents to 16.1 points per game — seventh in the FBS. Opponents often had to pick their poison as the Wolverines displayed efficiency against the pass and run alike.

The strength of this year’s unit is the linebacking corps headlined by Junior Colson (101 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss in 2022) and Mike Barrett (72 tackles, 3.0 sacks, two interceptions in 2022). Each of the top five tacklers remain, and the Wolverines look to pressure the Pirates’ revamped o-line with defensive tackle Kris Jenkins. And on the back-end, they’ll aim to record stops with nickelback Mike Sainristill and free safety Rod Moore. Moore is an essential component of the aerial defense and he wreaked havoc with a team-high four interceptions last fall.


Jim Harbaugh or no Jim Harbaugh, this is going to be an incredibly difficult opener for East Carolina. Last year’s Pirates team was much better equipped to handle the Wolverines, but with the mass exodus of a talented and experienced senior class, it’s going to take time for Mason Garcia and the heap of new starters to gel.

Michigan hasn’t taken any prisoners in non-conference play lately, and the Wolverines showcase potential All-American talent at a multitude of position groups, ranging from running back to offensive guard to linebacker. The No. 2 team in the land should definitely look the part against this revamped ECU squad Saturday.

Prediction: Michigan 45, East Carolina 7