EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first installment of a 12-part series previewing Marshall’s 12 football opponents for the 2020 season. Today, we take a look at East Carolina, whom the Herd plays on Aug. 29 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, North Carolina.
HUNTINGTON — On the surface, things seemed to continue in a recurring trend for East Carolina’s football team.
Led by first-year coach Mike Houston, the Pirates went 4-8 in 2019, the program’s fifth straight losing season.
However, the 2019 version of the Pirates looked much improved over the days under Scottie Montgomery.
East Carolina lost four conference games by two scores or less, which was a significant upgrade.
The highlights of those narrow defeats were a three-point loss to No. 21 Cincinnati and an eight-point loss to SMU.
The Pirates were competitive, and that bodes well for the future under Houston.
From an offensive standpoint, Houston should have plenty of weapons to choose from with the entirety of the team’s skill positions returning.
That offensive charge is led by quarterback Holton Ahlers, who overcame early-season struggles to finish as one of the better quarterbacks in the American Athletic Conference.
Ahlers really started to blossom in the final four weeks of the season. In the losses to Cincinnati and SMU, Ahlers combined for 1,033 yards passing, 10 touchdowns and one interception.
He followed up those performances with a 374-yard output in a win over UConn and a 308-yard, three-score showing in a loss to Tulsa.
Houston started to trust Ahlers more with the offense over those four final games and the passing attack really opened up, which helped set the tone for the 2020 season.
Ahlers returns his top three targets from last season in C.J. Johnson (54 catches, 908 yards, 4 TDs), Tyler Snead (66 catches, 759 yards, 5 TDs) and Blake Proehl (54 catches, 670 yards, 4 TDs).
In addition to the passing attack production, East Carolina’s rushing attack brings back Demetrius Mauney, Darrius Pinnix and Trace Christian as experienced backs.
While the trio has experience, they need to produce a bit more to balance out the offense and keep pressure off Ahlers to win games.
That offensive balance becomes even more pivotal when looking at the East Carolina defense, which struggled last season.
East Carolina was 119th in total defense, allowing 469.3 yards per game. The Pirates also were 11th in scoring defense at 33.7 points per game.
While the production was not strong on the defensive side, there are some pieces that Houston has to work with as he continues to build his program at ECU.
Leading tackler Xavier Smith returns for the Pirates to quarterback the defense from his inside linebacker spot while sophomore cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian is also expected to be a key contributor after a freshman campaign in which he had three interceptions and nine pass breakups.
Those are two of seven starters returning to a defensive unit that needs to turn potential into production.
On special teams, East Carolina returns Lou Groza Award candidate Jake Verity, who finished 24 of 29 on field goal attempts last season with just one miss from under 40 yards.
Also, punter Jonn Young — who notably sports one of the FBS’ top mustaches — returns after averaging 40.6 yards per punt last season.
The non-conference schedule is a bit unforgiving for the Pirates, who host Marshall in a “Week Zero” contest on Aug. 29 that commemorates the 50-year anniversary of the 1970 Marshall plane crash, which occurred on the Herd’s return from a 17-14 loss at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
That emotional contest is followed two weeks later by a road trip to SEC foe South Carolina. The non-conference schedule also features Norfolk State and upstart Georgia State.
The conference slate starts on national television with a Sept. 24 contest (Thursday) against UCF, which is just five days after the Norfolk State contest.
Houston and the Pirates have the offense to be a seven- or eight-win team in 2020, but it depends on how the team starts in non-conference play with the Marshall game being big for momentum early.
If the defense continues to struggle, however, so too could the Pirates’ chances of making a bowl game.