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Boston College Military Bowl Opponent Q&A: East Carolina

East Carolina v Navy Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

BC is just a few days away from taking on East Carolina in the Military Bowl. To learn about our AAC opponents, we looked to SBNation’s Underdog Dynasty, which covers much of the Group of 5 and FCS, again for the intel. Steve Helwick has documented East Carolina’s impressive season and is here today to talk to us about what the Pirates bring to the Christmas table ahead of Monday’s matchup.

BCI: What’s your tweet length review of the East Carolina regular season?

UD: East Carolina is back! After an 0-2 start, ECU rallied from a 17-point fourth quarter deficit to beat Marshall and it’s been a different team since. Behind an improved defense, the Pirates collected seven wins to return to bowl eligibility for the first time in seven years.

BCI: Coach Mike Houston has really turned around this program since arriving from JMU. Now, ECU heads to their first bowl game since 2014. How would you describe his coaching style? Is he a hot coaching candidate?

UD: Mike Houston has succeeded at every stop, from the Division II level to the FCS. East Carolina is without a doubt his toughest rebuilding effort yet, but the program clearly turned the corner this year. Houston inherited a team which ranked below 100th every year in scoring defense from 2016-20, and as a former defensive coordinator, he transformed the unit into a respectable bunch. Defense is his calling card, and his ability to work wonders with this young group explains why ECU returned to bowl season.

In terms of his candidacy for other jobs, Houston’s name came up as a potential suitor for the Virginia Tech and Duke openings, but I think teams would prefer to see sustained success in Greenville before lasering in on Houston.

BCI: A couple of big weapons on the offense. Keaton Mitchell has nearly 1400 yards from scrimmage and Tyler Snead has 860 yards receiving to go with *checks notes* two passing touchdowns. Talk to us about how the offense runs.

UD: Keaton Mitchell is the focal point of this offense. The halfback enjoyed a breakout year, accumulating a stat-line of at least 125 rushing yards and one touchdown in four different games. East Carolina enjoys using him as a workhorse back, but the offense also works Rahjai Harris into the mix for a slew of carries. Both halfbacks play a vital role as an option in the short yardage passing attack too.

When lefty quarterback Holton Ahlers is operating from the pocket, Tyler Snead is the preferred target. The 5’7” Snead typically lines up in the slot and leads the team in receiving yards due to a masterful set of hands. He’s an ideal target on screen plays and fly routes alike, and his ability to execute at all levels of the route tree make him a dangerous player to defend. In the win at Memphis, he dominated close to the line of scrimmage with 13 receptions for 113 yards. When facing Navy, Snead molded into explosive deep option with 137 yards and two touchdowns on just five catches. And finally, he’s a frequent go-to on gadget plays. He’s completed four passes as a Pirate and three have resulted in touchdowns, so Boston College’s secondary must remain aware of such trickery.

BCI: On the flipside Ja’Quan McMillian was named an All-American. What makes him so great and who are the other key pieces on the defense?

UD: Ja’Quan McMillian has a knack for getting to the right place at the right time. There are many occasions where it appears receivers are open, but McMillian has the ability to fly in at the last second to record a pass breakup or interception. It’s no coincidence he ranks second in the FBS in both deflections and picks, which earned him an All-American selection. Additionally, the sophomore is an expert at open field tackling. Not many receivers can escape his closing speed when battling 1-on-1 toward the boundary.

Other key pieces to watch on this defense include free safety Warren Saba, who also demonstrates ballhawking abilities to the tune of four interceptions this season. Additionally, inside linebacker Xavier Smith operates at the heart of the defense as one of the premier run stoppers for the Pirates.

BCI: Not sure about the nature of a rivalry, but would you say you’re rooting for fellow AAC member Cincinnati in the CFP (even though it is against Bama)?

UD: I think all AAC fans are pulling for Cincinnati in the College Football Playoff. To be honest, I’d expect most fanbases outside of Alabama to root for a Bearcat win. Cincinnati overcame plenty of obstacles in a system which was designed to keep them out — needing (1) to finish undefeated, (2) rely on Notre Dame to go 11-1 with a No. 5 ranking, and (3) require down years for the Big 12, AAC, and Pac-12 champions, all just to clinch the fourth spot. Also, it’s always refreshing to see a newcomer in the CFP, which has seen the same three bluebloods win 17 of its 21 matchups in history.

BCI: Vegas has BC as a three point favorite. What’s your score prediction here?

UD: Boston College 27, East Carolina 17. I predict the Eagles clinch their first bowl victory since 2016 behind the lethal connection of Phil Jurkovec to Zay Flowers. Although that pairing is stellar, the Pirates’ passing defense is still stout enough to prevent this one from entering shootout territory. East Carolina is 3-0 when Holton Ahlers throws above 300 yards, and given the fact that Boston College contains opposing aerial attacks with regularity, the Eagles should have enough pushback to prevent ECU from lighting it up offensively.

Big thanks to Steve for pulling back the curtain on an unfamiliar foe. Be sure to check out his great work at Underdog Dynasty and a few other spots on all things AAC, MAC, C-USA, etc.