Cincinnati Bearcats (6-1) travel to Greenville, North Carolina to face the East Carolina Pirates (2-5) on Saturday. Cincinnati is 4-1 against ECU in AAC play since 2014.
Q: What has impressed you the most about Mike Houston in his first year?
How much he’s been able to change the culture and atmosphere inside the locker room. Is it perfect? No. It’s always going to take time and you’re going to have guys who don’t buy in after a coaching change, but the large majority of the roster believes in this staff. It’s a winning staff. Houston has won everywhere he’s been. Unfortunately for the Pirates, they are just lacking right now in talent and depth compared to many teams in The American. But he’s implemented a new physical brand of football and a culture where all the little things add up to winning in the long-term. Houston and his staff have also recruited at a very high level for what was a group of coaches who have spent the majority of their time most recently at the FCS level. But the 2020 class currently ranks as one of the best in the AAC.
Q: Do you see a big difference between this year’s team and the past few years and how long before you expect to see ECU closer to the top of the standings than the bottom?
The physicality, the competitiveness, the desire are all there each Saturday. As simple as that sounds, I can’t say the same for most of the Scottie Montgomery era where the staff and team looked disengaged at times on game day. The fight the Pirates showed in the second half against UCF earlier this year, trailing 35-6 at the break but outscoring the Knights’ first-team 22-6 in the second half, is something we wouldn’t have seen previously. Now, how long until ECU turns that effort into actual tangible results and wins? It’s just going to take time. Montgomery did not leave the roster in a good place. There are some great young pieces, but many of those guys are learning on the fly right now. I think it will realistically take Houston 2-3 years to have Houston competing with the likes of Cincinnati and UCF on a regular basis.
Q: Who is the key player on offense and defense for Cincinnati to be aware of?
Offensively, the easy answer is Holton Ahlers. The offense goes as he does as he’s a dual-threat guy with some big-time ability, even though he’s been very up and down this season. That said, I’ll go with true freshman C.J. Johnson. He’s listed at 6-foot-2, 229 pounds. He’s physical, talented and hard to tackle. Extremely young but he’s already emerging as a go-to guy and will be an all-conference guy down the road. Defensively, senior edge rusher Kendall Futrell is probably the most explosive player on that side of the ball. He leads the team with eight sacks, seven of which have come in the last four games. Futrell is undersized in the running game, but is very fast off the edge as a pass-rusher.
Q: What is the one thing that must happen for ECU to win on Saturday?
I think it will take more than one thing given the talent disparity, but obviously the Pirates are probably going to have to catch a few breaks and win the turnover battle by at least a decent margin. The 45-20 score against USF was surprising to everyone, but ECU also failed to score three times inside the 20, throwing a pick, losing a fumble and getting stopped at USF’s 1-yard line. If the Pirates score on each of those possessions, it’s obviously a much different ball game. So, winning the turnover battle, and finding a way to actually finish drives in the red zone would be a good start.
Q: What impresses you about Cincinnati when you watch film on them and what worries you the most in regards to ECU’s chances?
There’s a lot, but offensively, the poise quarterback Desmond Ridder shows is pretty amazing given how young he still is as a sophomore. The game never seems to move too fast for him, and he always seems to know when to use his legs when things break down. I think ECU will have trouble stopping him Saturday. Defensively, the Bearcats’ front is scary for the Pirates. The offensive line has been a problem for ECU this season and I won’t be surprised if the Pirates struggle to block Cincinnati’s pass rush on Saturday throughout the game.