East Carolina, riding high on its first three-game winning streak since 2014, is set to visit UCF in an American Athletic Conference game at Orlando on Saturday.
East Carolina (3-2, 1-0) won just five of its first 19 games under coach Mike Houston, but things started to turn around at the end of last season, and the Pirates are now 5-2 in their past seven games, including 3-0 against conference foes.
Pirates running back Keaton Mitchell leads the nation in yards per carry (9.6), and is sixth nationally in rushing yards (574). He has four touchdowns this season, including two on Saturday in East Carolina’s 52-29 win over Tulane.
Mitchell had 222 yards on just 15 carries against Tulane, exciting his teammates with his long-distance runs.
“I was running down there (on the sideline), almost getting a penalty,” East Carolina safety Warren Saba said of his reaction to Mitchell’s runs of 68 and 30 yards. “He’s a great player for our team.”
Mitchell has had a positive effect on ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers, who is fourth in the AAC in passing yards (1,266).
“Anytime you can just hand the ball off and score, it makes it easy for me,” said Ahlers, who is averaging 253 passing yards a game. “Once he gets past five yards, it’s hard to catch him. He’s a special talent.”
Meanwhile, the Knights (2-2, 0-1) have lost two straight games in rather shocking fashion.
On Sept. 17, UCF was tied with Louisville when Knights quarterback Dillon Gabriel threw a pick-six with just 13 seconds remaining, resulting in a 42-35 Cardinals win.
The Knights then tried a multi-lateral final play during which Gabriel suffered what is likely a season-ending broken left clavicle.
Last Saturday, UCF — playing with true freshman quarterback Mikey Keene — built a 30-17 lead over Navy after three quarters, but then allowed 17 fourth-quarter points in a 34-30 defeat.
“Those weren’t just losses,” UCF coach Gus Malzahn said. “Those were two really tough losses.”
Keene, who went 23-0 as a high school quarterback in Arizona, is a mobile, 5-11, 180-pounder. He completed 16 of 26 passes for 178 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against Navy.
“Mikey handled himself well,” Malzahn said. “He knew what he was reading. He protected the football, which you worry about with a freshman.”
UCF has won five straight games in this annual series, and the Pirates have been unable to stop the Knights. UCF has outscored ECU by an average score of 48-23.
But this appears to be a much-improved East Carolina team, starting with Ahlers.
“He has made 30 starts, and he’s very impressive,” Malzahn said of the 6-foot-3, 230-pound ECU quarterback. “Their running back (Mitchell) is one of the most explosive in our league. And their defense leads the league in interceptions and tackles for losses.
“East Carolina is a very good team. They played South Carolina close (losing 20-17), and they have momentum.”
–Field Level Media