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ECU Takes Increased Confidence Into This Week's Game at SMU

Ever improving freshman receiver Jsi Hatfield has added an additional weapon to an ECU offense that is getting better every game.
Ever improving freshman receiver Jsi Hatfield has added an additional weapon to an ECU offense that is getting better every game. (PirateIllustrated.com photo)

ECU hits the road this Saturday for another tough AAC road test against SMU in Gerald Ford Stadium in Dallas.

The Mustangs enter this week's game ranked 23rd after a close 54-48 loss at 19th ranked Memphis.

The Pirates will look to take their offensive momentum from a close last second 46-43 loss at home to 17th ranked Cincinnati.

While ever improving ECU remains winless in AAC play, they have put themselves in a better position to win of late.

Quarterback Holton Ahlers and freshman receiver C.J. Johnson hooked up for record setting performances last week with Ahlers throwing for 535 yards and Johnson hauling in 12 catches for an AAC and ECU record setting 283 yards.

ECU head coach Mike Houston likes where his team is headed progress wise and he broke down some of the reasons for the recent improvement.

"I think they’re very motivated. I think we talked a lot about last week, taking the practice field to the game field and believing in yourself and having confidence in yourself. Then seizing the moment and taking your shot," said Houston,

"I think you saw them gain confidence throughout the game the other night. Now the thing they’ve got to focus on is why did we play so well? We played so well because they had their best week of preparation leading up into the game. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, I’ve said it many times, it was almost scary how well we did in those preparations and it’s what you become accustomed to when you have really good football teams. You have a really sharp Thursday practice, then Friday is really dialed in, you can feel it."

"Both teams played at a very, very high level. Both teams competed. Very physical game. You say you want to have a shot to win in the fourth quarter, we had more than just a shot. We had every opportunity to win the ballgame and that’s the next challenge."

“You have an opportunity to knock off the number. 17 team in the country, you’ve got to make the plays there at the end of the ballgame to put the game away. A lot of credit goes to Cincinnati," said Houston.

Houston said ECU had a shorter, very focused practice on Sunday. Tuesday's practice will be a physical, full pad practice followed by another intense practice on Wednesday in helmets and shoulder pads.

One of the things that is helping in addition to record setting performances from Ahlers and Johnson is just opening up the offense. More players are contributing, making it harder for opponents to key in on one receiver and the ECU offensive line did a better job up front.

"Sometimes it gets overshadowed a little bit, the performance of Jsi Hatfield, Blake Proehl, Tyler Snead. Even Zech Byrd, having his first college touchdown. Just so many other guys that we were able to get involved. Really, that’s what you want," Houston told PirateIllustrated.com on Tuesday, "When this offense is playing at a very high level, you should have multiple players being productive at a lot of different positions. So, I think you saw us playing at a much higher level, not just the guys getting the stats, but we didn’t give up a sack against a very talented defensive group from Cincinnati. Really, Holton was not pressured much. That’s a big factor also.”

SMU brings multiple formations and trick plays and the Mustangs have a large number of contributors offensively and defensively according to Houston.

“The thing with SMU is they can do it all. They’re very explosive offensively. The quarterback, (Shane Buchele) a transfer from the University of Texas, was the starter at Texas at one point in his career. Very talented passer, above average rusher. But you look and his completion percentage is in the mid-60’s, he’s just under 3,000 yards passing for the year and he hasn’t made a lot of mistakes. Obviously, everything kind of centers around him."

"They have two, I think, high-end running backs. No. 5 (Xavier Jones) is sitting there just under 1,000 yards rushing on the season, but I think No. 2 (Ke’Mon Freeman), there’s not a whole lot of drop off when they go to him," Houston said, "Receiver wise, No. 3 (James Proche) is one of the top receivers in the conference. He’s having a really, special year. No. 8 (Reggie Roberson, Jr.) is probably out, but No. 11 (Rashee Rice), the freshman came in and went for 122 yards there in his place. The tight end, No. 83 (Kylen Granson) is very similar to the tight ends we’ve seen the past couple of weeks where they’re legitimate threats in the passing game as well as being solid blockers. Their offensive line has done a good job."

"They are going to play an up-tempo style. Maybe not quite as fast as UCF, but still, they are going to play an up-tempo game. They do everything. They’re going to formation us all over the place. They’re going to run every trick play in the book. They’ve double-reversed pass, throwback to the quarterback, everything you can think of, they’ve ran this year. We’re going to have to do a really good job of being disciplined and being dialed in to our responsibilities and being aggressive."

“Defensively, they’re a multiple four-down, three-down group. Very athletic. Another group that plays a lot of defensive linemen. They have tremendous depth in their defensive front. They’re very diverse on the backend with their coverages and do a lot of things back there. They’re going to take chances. They’re going to be very aggressive. They’re going to make some big plays. Hopefully we can capitalize and maybe make some big plays of their own. I think they’re a solid football team. There’s a reason they were 7-0."

“On special teams, they’re very dangerous in the return game. They’ve had a touchdown on the kickoff return this year. Coverage-wise, they’ve done a couple of different things there. They’ve been a little bit inconsistent at times with the kickoff team. But the punt team, they use a rugby-style punter that happens to be their strong safety. So, they do some different things there in the coverage. A complete football team. Coach (Sonny) Dykes has done a great job there. They’ve got a lot of new faces this year and those new faces are playing at a very high level.”

Defensive end Kendall Futrell and the defense took a lot out of Saturday's game with Cincinnati and they hope to add to that this week at SMU.

"We feel good. We've got confidence to know that we can compete and play with anybody as long as we play our game," said Futrell who told PirateIllustrated.com that he has seen SMU on film," They're a very talented team.They have an explosive offense with a great running and passing game so we've just got to own into that on defense and just stop it."

Brandon Pena will start at right guard this week as ECU makes alignment adjustments in the absence of Sean Bailey at right tackle. That will find John Spellacy at center and Noah Henderson at right tackle according to this week's depth chart.

"One thing we've seen from Saturday night is we can do this. We can play with anyone in the conference," said Pena, "We've shown strides of it through some other games but I feel like it came together more this past game. We're highly motivated and it's a great opportunity for us."

"It's exciting. Scoring touchdowns is fun. It's a feeling like no other. You hear that Pirate cannon go off," Pena told PI, "We know what we can as an offense now. We can play with these guys even though they're ranked nationally. We just think we can go out there and score and the only ones who can stop us is if we go out there and stop ourselves."

Game time is scheduled for 12 noon eastern time on ESPN U.

Catch our complete audio from Tuesday's Mike Houston weekly press conference along with the comments of offensive lineman Brandon Pena and defensive end Kendall Futrell.

PI AUDIO: MIKE HOUSTON SMU WEEK PRESS CONFERENCE

PI AUDIO: BRANDON PENA & KENDALL FUTRELL