Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a 12-part series previewing Marshall’s opponents for the 2021 season. Marshall’s Week Three opponent is one of the most storied opponents in Herd history: East Carolina.
HUNTINGTON — For East Carolina, the season started with disappointment as a scheduled home game to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Marshall plane crash fell victim to COVID-19.
The loss of the game due to COVID-19 issues canceled a somber memorial weekend that would have brought the two programs together.
From that disappointment, the season did not get much better for Mike Houston and company as the team finished 3-6 overall and 3-5 in the American Athletic Conference.
While there was frustration early, there were some positives near season’s end — and we aren’t meaning COVID-19.
The Pirates saw their defense start to come together after a dismal start to the year, which will be critical around what should be a strong offensive skill set for Houston, who is going into year three.
Offensively, East Carolina averaged more than 400 yards and 30 points a game, thanks to the success of quarterback Holton Ahlers, who returns for his fourth year as the starter for ECU.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound quarterback makes everything click for East Carolina and saw his passing efficiency numbers improve, which is a bonus.
There are also plenty of talented guys for him to select in the passing attack, led by Tyler Snead (53 receptions) and C.J. Johnson (21 yards per reception, six TDs). Houston also used the transfer portal to his benefit to aid in the passing attack.
Running back Rahjai Harris leads the rushing attack and is arguably one of the team’s top talents, but that is contingent on the offensive line — which returns all five starters, including offensive tackle Walter Stribling — improving in run-blocking schemes and also protecting Ahlers.
Those pieces on offense returning to a 400-yard, 30-point-per-game attack is plenty of reason for optimism, but only until the opposite side of the football is examined.
East Carolina’s run defense was porous, and was a direct sign of success for the team.
It was a simple equation, really.
When ECU allowed 175 rushing yards or more in a game, the team was 0-6.
When they didn’t, the team was 3-0.
That’s a pretty glaring statistic.
The good news is that there are several players involved in the run-stopping aspect who return, including linebackers Xavier Smith and Bruce Bivens.
Hybrid talent Jireh Wilson can also line up on the back end of the defense or move down in the box to aid against the run, as well.
The beef up front has to get beefier and plug up some holes that the opposition ran through at will last season.
On the back end, cornerback JaQuan McMillian returns, giving the Pirates a lock-down corner which frees them up to send disguised looks and blitzes to aid in the rushing defense, too. Safety Shawn Dourseau is also a talent that can take the defense to another level.
The non-conference portion of the season does East Carolina no favors, really, with Appalachian State (Sept. 2) and Marshall (Sept. 18) both favored in their respective conferences and South Carolina wedged between those two games.
East Carolina needs to eek out a win in one of those three matchups to earn a split in non-conference, which would give some momentum heading into AAC play where they will have one of the better offenses in the league.
If they don’t, Houston may have a real problem in Greenville, North Carolina, in 2021.