No. 7 Cincinnati faces struggling East Carolina next
Second-year East Carolina coach Mike Houston aspires to lift the Pirates to the heights Cincinnati has attained under Luke Fickell in his fourth season as coach of the Bearcats.
The Pirates (1-5, 1-4 American Athletic Conference) will find out where they stand Friday night when they visit No. 7 Cincinnati (6-0, 4-0).
“It’s an exciting matchup for our players,” Houston said. “Being able to go on the road against an opponent of Cincinnati’s caliber and playing on a national stage has our players and staff excited.”
Houston, who was 37-6 at FCS school James Madison with a national title in 2016 and a runner-up finish the following season, is attempting to rebuild an East Carolina program that has not won more than one conference game in a season since 2017.
The Pirates finished with three consecutive 3-9 overall records before going 4-8 last season.
Even though ECU has lost three in a row, junior quarterback Holton Ahlers said he feels the culture has changed for the better since Houston’s arrival.
“We know that we’re so close. We are as close as we’ve been since any of us have been here,” he said. “The brighter days are ahead, and that’s what we’re going to continue to fight for. Our first chance is Cincinnati.
“We had a good game vs. Cincinnati last year, and we’re going to go up there and try to pull off the upset against a great team.”
Last season, the Pirates led the Bearcats, who at the time were ranked 17th in the nation, 40-28 going into the fourth quarter before Cincinnati outscored them 18-3 to win 46-43 in Greenville, N.C.
Fickell’s Bearcats know what it’s like to be the underdog, having gone 4-8 in his first season in 2017.
“We should’ve only won one game,” he said.
Now the Bearcats, carrying a program-record 18-game home winning streak, are in the conversation to be the first team from a non-Power 5 conference to make the College Football Playoff.
“Why not? We’re putting in the work as much as other teams,” Cincinnati running back Gerrid Doaks said. “Why not get a shot? Our goal is to make a statement every week. Go out there and dominate.”
That domination begins with a defense that ranks fifth nationally with 11.7 points allowed per game.
“Just knowing our defense is playing at the high level they play at, it gives us all the confidence in the world to go out and make plays,” Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder said. “It puts us in the best position we can be.”
The Bearcats are also 10th in rush defense (93.3 yards per game), which is bad news for East Carolina because the Pirates ran for just 35 yards on 29 attempts in a 38-21 loss to Tulane on Saturday.
“Cincinnati is the top team in our league and will be until someone knocks them off,” Houston said. “I’ve been there. I’ve been the bunch that is at the top. The tough thing about it is that you’ll get everyone’s best shot each week. It’s hard to get the top, but it’s also hard to stay there.”
–Field Level Media