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UConn football 2019 opponent preview: East Carolina

UConn and East Carolina will face off on the Saturday before Thanksgiving this year.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Connecticut Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

East Carolina and UConn have done battle every year since 2014, with the Pirates holding a 4-1 advantage even though ECU has fired two head coaches during this time.

Speaking of head coaches, these two schools share a former head coach in Skip Holtz, who was at UConn from 1994-1998 and at ECU from 2005-2009. Holtz left Greenville to coach at another future AAC school, South Florida, from 2010-2012.

Once upon a time, East Carolina’s football program was thriving as a member of Conference USA and appeared poised to be a regular competitor in the AAC. Under Ruffin McNeill, the Pirates went 10-3 in 2013, their final C-USA season and 8-5 the next year in the American. They went 5-7 the next year, with a loss to UConn, and surprisingly McNeill was fired, even though he won 26 games in the previous three years and had taken ECU to a bowl in four out of the previous five seasons. McNeill is an ECU alumnus!

“Our expectations are to compete for championships,” athletic director Jeff Compher said.

McNeill’s replacement Scottie Montgomery didn’t reach those lofty goals, getting fired after three 3-win seasons.

A new athletic director has hired Mike Houston, who went 37-6 and made two national championship games in three seasons at FCS power James Madison, winning one. He also won a Southern Conference title at FCS Citadel and was a national runner-up at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne.

Houston, a North Carolina native, has won a lot and has a lot going for him. He’ll be well-positioned to recruit the talent-rich home state, as well as Virginia and Florida, and the program enjoys strong fan support. But he won’t be turning this thing around quickly. His team’s visit to UConn on November 23rd will be a relative toss up, even though the Pirates are likely to be slightly favored.

2018 in Review

What’s the best cure for a five-game losing streak? A visit from a one-win team with a hapless, overly youthful defense, of course!

That’s exactly what UConn brought to ECU in the Huskies’ second-to-last game of the season, a 55-21 loss in Greenville. Montgomery was fired before the season even ended.

True freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers started the final five games of the season, including the UConn win. He put up 242 yards and 4 touchdowns against the Huskies. Ahlers finished as the team’s leading passer and also its leading rusher, with just 542 yards.

Trevon Brown was by far the team’s leading receiver, hauling in 74 passes for 1121 yards and nine touchdowns. Four other guys were in the 200-400 yard range.

The defense was not as bad as UConn’s but not very good either, coming in at 119th in S&P+. They were somewhat disruptive up front, and held strong in the running game, despite taking a lot of risks and allowing big plays. The secondary was not in very good shape but, like UConn, ECU is hoping the youthful players gaining experience can improve.

2019 Outlook

ECU has two FCS teams on the schedule, but William & Mary is one of them and that could be a challenge. Expectations are not high for this team, and Houston has enough leeway to take his time in building the program in his vision. He has a young quarterback to work with and could have this thing rolling by the time Ahlers is a senior.

For now, uncertainty at running back and offensive line have the run game looking suspect, and with Brown gone ECU is looking for answers there as well. There is returning talent on defense, but not enough and the group is still pretty green.

Matchup Against UConn

This is a winnable game for UConn, who should be able to move the ball offensively, but ECU will be going up against a suspect defense as well. It’ll probably be a shootout, more like the 2017 meeting that the 2018 contest, and it should be fairly even. UConn will take its fair share of rough losses during the season. This better not be one of them.

I’ll give the Huskies the edge at home. They’ll be looking to prove themselves in this late stage of the season and hopefully have found out who they can count on while the new coordinators find some sort of rhythm.

Prediction: UConn 38, East Carolina 34