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Make no mistake about it, ECU’s performance in its last game certainly produced a much-needed good feeling for everyone associated with the program.
Entering its Oct. 21 matchup against BYU at 1-6, the Pirates football program was surrounded by frustration, anger and turmoil. Luckily, the 33-17 triumph over the Cougars provided a brief reprieve for ECU fans, and one that was extended with last week’s open date.
But, the Pirates will face a completely different test this weekend at Houston, a game that will truly measure how much progress ECU has made.
Even with the loss of former head coach Tom Herman to Texas following 22 wins over the past two seasons, Houston has continued its success under new coach Major Applewhite. Certainly things have been a bit more up-and-down for the Cougars under Applewhite than Herman, but the talent is still top-notch, and the road test awaiting the Pirates in Texas this Saturday at noon EDT is a big one.
Houston enters the game 5-3 overall and the Cougars are coming off a 28-24 road victory at previously unbeaten South Florida this past Saturday.
ECU comes in at 2-6 with an average margin of defeat by 33 points. But the win over BYU has seemingly given the Pirates plenty of confidence, even as 23-point underdogs to the Cougars.
“We have to go play a good, really good football team on the road and I think our team is prepared for it,” Montgomery said. “I think we’re playing with a lot of confidence right now. If they score, we’re going to come back and score. Defensively, we’re going to be able to get some stops.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence. They’re going to play well. We’re going to play well.”
OLIVER A CHALLENGE
In order to fill Montgomery’s prophecy and find a way to compete, the Pirates will have to take care of and handle arguably the best player in the American Athletic Conference in Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver.
A former five-star recruit whose athleticism is arguably as impressive as his strength at 6-foot-3, 290-pounds, Oliver has simply been unblockable at times over his first two collegiate seasons.
“He’s the best player in our league,” ECU offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said. “He disrupts football games and he’s going to cause problems. We’ve got to do everything we can to know where he’s at, take care of him and you’ve got to be cautious with him every play.”
Despite being double-teamed throughout this season, the sophomore has still managed to produce. Oliver makes plays at the line of scrimmage and down the field, ranking third on the team in tackles (49). He also leads the defense in tackles for loss (nine), sacks (2.5) and quarterback hurries (six).
“He’s not just big and physical,” Petersen said. “He’s quick, athletic and physical. He’s got it all now. He can cause problems on a lot of plays. Just go turn on the first two plays against South Florida and see what he did to them.”
The interior of ECU’s offensive line knows the test that it faces this weekend. True freshman center John Spellacy will work with junior guards Garrett McGhin and Des Barmore to keep Oliver out of the backfield as much as possible.
“He’s a guy that we’ve done a lot of pre-gaming for and we’ve got a lot of stuff, so we recognize what the troubles are going to be,” McGhin said. “It’s all about understanding the concepts of what we’re trying to change and adapt, because that’s what teams do. You adapt to different coverages, different quarterbacks, different defensive lines, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
SIRK ON TRACK TO START
After an injury scare in his last outing, ECU quarterback Thomas Sirk appears on track to start this weekend’s game at Houston.
Sirk suffered a contusion to his triceps in his right throwing arm, knocking him out of the win over BYU, but last week’s open date was extremely beneficial to the Pirates’ starting quarterback. The Duke graduate transfer was held out of last week’s practice and received plenty of treatment to his arm and he returned to the field Sunday and Tuesday with no ill side effects.
“He looked good,” Montgomery said. “He’s throwing the ball well. The biggest thing with him is not getting him hit to make sure he can progress towards game day, but nobody touches him or any quarterbacks during practice. So he’s looking good right now.”
Receiving treatment is nothing new to Sirk, whose physical running style has caused him to suffer two major torn Achilles and deal with other bumps and bruises throughout his collegiate career.
“I think the off week was beneficial for me,” Sirk said. “I was in the training room a lot, getting that extra recovery in. Making sure any aches or pains I had, I tried to take care of them.”
This isn’t the first injury to a limb Sirk has dealt with this season. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback suffered a bone bruise to his left elbow during a preseason scrimmage, forcing him to miss some practice time and wear a brace through the first few games of the season. But unlike his left arm injury, Sirk said his right one didn’t linger.
“It bounced back good and it’s feeling 100 percent now out at practice throwing,” Sirk said. “I started on Sunday getting it loose, getting it moving and throwing again. But it feels great.”
More injury updates
Along with Sirk, ECU has also gotten back several other key players following the bye.
Starting defensive backs Tim Irvin (ankle) and Corey Seargent (hamstring) could each potentially return this week, while wide receiver Deondre Farrier (ankle), cornerback Marcus Holton Jr. (leg), defensive tackle Raequan Purvis (leg) and wide out Jimmy Williams (lower back) are all expected to be back in action for the Houston game.
“A lot of people are happy this week because the injury report looks nothing like it did before the open date,” Montgomery said.