Publisher's note: This post appears here courtesy of the news and information section for East Carolina University men's and women's sports.
First-year East Carolina Head Football Coach Mike Houston
addressed members of the media Tuesday prior to Saturday's season finale against Tulsa. The following are selected comments:
"It was good to get a road win in league play last weekend at Connecticut. It certainly was an exciting ball game. I thought the players were very engaged all week last week and were prepared to play on Saturday. I thought we played really hard. I liked how our sideline was throughout the day. I thought the players were very into the game and did a great job at timeouts and sideline adjustments - things like that.
"We certainly made some mistakes on Saturday. Some of them were big ones. I thought we were in position to put the game away several times. To UConn's credit, they capitalized on those mistakes and stayed in the ball game. I've said a couple of times since Saturday that the critical turning point was when we had a seven-point lead and had them pinned deep at their goal line, they had the 94-yard touchdown pass. Then, a couple of plays later we throw the interception that was returned deep into our territory. At that point, you are teetering on the point of them taking complete control of the game. Our defense got a three and out and the offense came back, drove down the field and scored to take the lead permanently. We were able to get the big stop at the end with seconds remaining in the game. I think that whole sequence shows the growth, resiliency and mental toughness of this group. Given that same exact scenario back in late August or early September, I don't know that we win that ball game.
"Everybody looks at UConn's record and thinks one thing, but this is a football team that is playing better than they were a year ago. It was their last home game in the league for them and their Senior Day. Coach Edsall is someone I respect for what he has accomplished there. Ten years ago, this Saturday they beat Notre Dame and were headed to the Fiesta Bowl a year later, so this is a guy who knows what he is doing. Given all those factors, this was a challenging game Saturday. I'm proud of our guys and how they fought to come out with a win. You could see how they felt with some of the postgame stuff that was shared on social media with the celebration in the locker room. We all know what I walked into last December, but this is the first time for the seniors that they have won a fourth game in a season. Don't think that doesn't mean something to them. We all wish we had six wins right now and were playing for a bowl trip. But the reality is that we got our fourth win of the season and have a chance to fight for number five in our last game of the year against an extremely talented Tulsa team.
"Tulsa has had the chance, like we have a couple times, to knock off some of the best teams in the country. They did get UCF, but they also went to triple overtime with SMU and had Memphis down to the last play of the game. They also had a close game with Cincinnati and some others, so this is a team that is much better than its record. It is a team that has as much talent as anyone in the league and has some of the top players in the league on its roster. We are really going to have to play well Saturday to have a shot. Our team is very motivated, and I expect us to have a great week of practice in order to be dialed in and ready to play on Saturday. I expect a big rowdy crowd of Pirate faithful here on Saturday for what should be a great game."
On What Needs To Happen For The Defense To Progress:
"You look at the game last week and there were only three to five plays that were the chunk of UConn's offense. We need to eliminate those big plays. They had two big passing plays that went for scores then two more big passing plays that were a result of a player slipping. We also didn't play one of the routes very well. If you take those plays out and I think we did a much better job Saturday. I was pleased with how we defended the run. Again, you have to eliminate those big plays because that is what defense is about. It sounds like an excuse because the reality is that we did give up those plays and over 400 yards passing."
On Concerns Regarding Game Planning For Tulsa:
"The thing that concerns you is that they have some of the best players in this league on both sides of the ball. Coach Montgomery has experience as the offensive coordinator at Baylor for Coach Briles when they were really rolling. Their style of offense is going to be tempo based. They will really put their foot on the gas. At certain points they will check with the sideline. Zach Smith is a veteran quarterback - a grad transfer from Baylor. Shamari Brooks is one of the better running backs we will have seen this year. Keylon Stokes will be one of the better receivers we have seen this year. The rest of their personnel is very good - very solid players in this league. Their big play ability worries you, especially with that tempo offense that is very similar to what UCF and SMU run.
"With their defense, Trevis Gipson is possibly the best defensive lineman we have seen all season. He's a guy at 6'4" and 270 pounds that can run and bend. You look at him on tape and see why he is top five in the conference in sacks and tackles for loss. People are doing everything they can to double him and slide the protection to him. They are doing all kinds of things to neutralize him and he is still making those kind of impacts. Reggie Robinson leads the league in interceptions and is the best corner we have seen all year. He is one of those that if you make a mistake, it will be an interception and possibly a score. We have to be conscientious about how we attack him. The linebacker corps is very good. Zaven Collins is a young linebacker - 6'4" at 260 pounds that can run and make plays all over the field.
On Handling The Emotions Of Senior Day:
"This is our first senior class. I did not recruit these young men, but I did inherit them, and they have been significant in the positive change of our program's culture. When you look at all senior classes, obviously a class of a certain size will be smaller when it graduates due to attrition throughout the years. These young men have been through a lot in their careers here, but the one thing that stands out to me is that when I talked to them last December, they were adamant about leaving the program in better shape than they found it. They wanted to see the program change. We have goals that we won't achieve this year, but there are still some that we can achieve. The big thing for me is paying tribute to these young men and the positive impact they have had on not only this year's team but the program. They have been great ambassadors for this University. Some of them have been standouts on the field and others that have been standouts behind the scenes on the scout team and behind the front lines. Of course, it becomes more emotional the longer you spend time with them but when you stand next to the guys with some of the things we have shared the last 11 months, you are just very proud of them.
"The focus Saturday will obviously be on Tulsa and I'll talk to the seniors about that after practice today. The last thing we do before going to bed Friday will be the senior speeches where they will get up and address the team and speak from the heart about what the program has meant to them as well as any parting words of encouragement or advice for their teammates. I have memories from many, many years. This is the ninth college team with which I have had a Senior Day and there are specific individuals I can remember that gave standout speeches to the team and coaches on the Friday night before their last home game. Some of the things these guys have inside of them are really impressive. On Senior Day we will recognize not only the seniors but also their families at the end of pregame warmups. We'll do it one at a time. We'll take photos and the seniors will have a rose for their mothers. It will be special. We will also have something else for the seniors later on in the offseason."
On The Consistency Of The Defensive Line:
"I think it says a lot about their durability and physical development. They've all been dinged up throughout the year at various times, but they've kept practicing and playing. That says a lot about the character of those four men. Three of them are seniors. Certainly, I wish I had gotten the job two years ago to have experienced depth behind them because you do want more of a rotation than we have played this season. At the same time, however, those four have done an outstanding job this year."
On The Team's Thanksgiving Week Schedule And Thanksgiving Memories:
"There are no classes Wednesday, Thursday or Friday so we do have a little bit of a different schedule. We will meet and lift tomorrow morning then practice right after lunch so we will finish a little earlier than normal to give them some down time tomorrow night. We will get up and practice Thursday morning before having a team Thanksgiving dinner with the players, coaches and their families and the support staff. It's a traditional Thanksgiving meal where we will reflect on being thankful for what we have and enjoy some fellowship together. After we are done with that, the team will have the rest of Thanksgiving Day off so they can watch the [Dallas] Cowboys get that big "W" at 4 p.m. Friday is a pretty normal day heading into the weekend.
"All of us, especially the sports guys associate Thanksgiving with football. Thanksgiving Weekend really became significant when I was coaching in Division II because it's the second round of the national playoffs. If you are coaching on Thanksgiving Weekend in Division II, you are having a special season. As we progressed on to Division I at The Citadel, James Madison and now at East Carolina, obviously we have had a lot of these Thanksgiving practices. Each one has been special because we have had some great wins on Thanksgiving Weekend. Hopefully we can create one more this weekend."
On Playing At Home During Thanksgiving Week As Opposed To Traveling:
"I always think playing at home during Thanksgiving Week is an advantage. We have been on the road a lot during this time as well. The good thing about that is waking up Friday and doing the walkthrough without having to worry about classes and things like that, so I think there are some plusses about this week being a travel week because it's not as compact as usual. However, the home team definitely has the advantage this time of year."