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Navy will welcome East Carolina, with third different head coach, to Annapolis on Saturday

East Carolina head coach Mike Houston speaks with players prior to an NCAA college football game against N.C. State in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome).
East Carolina head coach Mike Houston speaks with players prior to an NCAA college football game against N.C. State in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome). (Gerry Broome/AP)

Navy will begin its fifth season as a member of the American Athletic Conference on Saturday by hosting East Carolina, which will feature its third different head coach during that span.

In 2015, the Midshipmen made their AAC debut with a 45-21 blowout of a Pirates squad led by Ruffin McNeill. One year later, Navy went down to Greenville and laid a 66-31 whipping on East Carolina after Scottie Montgomery had replaced McNeill as head coach.

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Mike Houston will be at the helm when East Carolina comes to Annapolis on Saturday to resume the series. The American Athletic Conference has a two-year rotation of crossover partners between the West and East divisions so the Midshipmen will meet the Pirates again next season at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

Montgomery was fired after compiling a 9-26 record in three seasons at East Carolina and is now the offensive coordinator at Maryland. Houston was hired away from James Madison, which he led to consecutive appearances in the Football Championship Subdivision national finals.

“We have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Houston. He’s a good football coach and has won everywhere he’s been,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said Monday during the AAC weekly teleconference. “I know Coach Houston and all he’s done. His teams have always been tough and hard-nosed.”

Houston amassed a 29-8 record in three seasons at Lenoir-Rhyne, which he led to the Division II championship game. He then turned around The Citadel, which went 9-4 and reached the second round of the FCS playoffs in 2015.

Houston led James Madison to the FCS national championship in his first season at the helm in 2016. He boasts a career head coaching record of 81-26 and now undertakes the task of turning around East Carolina, which is coming off three consecutive 3-9 campaigns.

East Carolina opened the Houston era with a humbling 34-6 loss to N.C. State, but rebounded to beat Gardner-Webb 48-9 this past Saturday.

“Having big wins like that are great for your program and morale so I’m sure their spirits are up,” Niumatalolo said. “We know this will be a tough ballgame and we’re excited to be at home.”

Junior running back Darius Pinnix made the American Athletic Conference honor roll on Monday after establishing career-highs with 21 carries, 134 yards and two touchdowns against Gardner-Webb. Freshman Demetrius Mauney ran for 107 yards on 13 totes while sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers passed 195 yards and rushed for 78 yards and a pair scores.

Winning the home opener in dominant fashion brought an uplifting end to a difficult week in which Houston’s father died last Tuesday and he attended the funeral on Thursday.

“I knew when I took the job in December, my dad, that’s when his health started to decline a little bit more rapidly, so I knew this day would come,” Houston said. “I didn't know when, and it came really, really quick over the weekend. It kind of punches you in the gut a little bit. But the support of the fans, the support of the staff here was just really incredible. And it makes me sit back and really count my blessings.”

Navy (1-0) had a bye last weekend after routing Holy Cross, 45-7, in the season opener on August 31. Niumatalolo gave the players Sunday and Monday off before conducting the traditional conditioning day on Tuesday then resuming practice on Wednesday.

“I thought we had a good open week. We got a little rest and also got a lot of good work in as far as starting our preparation for ECU,” said Niumatalolo, who held practices on Thursday and Friday then gave the players the weekend off.

This marks the fifth consecutive season the Midshipmen have opened American Athletic Conference action at home. Navy is 4-0 in AAC home openers – beating East Carolina (2015), Connecticut (2016), Tulane (2017) and Memphis (2018).

“Navy has a tremendous tradition and Ken does an incredible job with the program. That goes without being said,” Houston said. “We have a tremendous task in front of us – on the road against a well-rested team that’s had two weeks to prepare. Big challenge and a great opportunity.”

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Houston has been around long enough to know Navy did not reveal its full offensive and defensive packages against an over-matched Football Championship Subdivision opponent. Quarterback Malcolm Perry enjoyed the finest passing game of his career, completing 6 of 9 attempts for 103 yards. However, it did not seem like the Mids used many of the run-and-shoot schemes that were installed during the off-season.

Meanwhile, first-year defensive coordinator Brian Newberry has implemented a more aggressive defensive package. Navy notched seven tackles for loss and three sacks versus Holy Cross using a game-plan that probably was not as exotic as Newberry will call moving forward.

“Unfortunately, we only have one game from this season to watch. Obviously, they played very, very well in all three phases against Holy Cross,” Houston said of Navy. “I think they probably did not have to show very much against Holy Cross on either side of the ball. They were able to take care of business and did not have to show everything they’ve got.

“Certainly, we’re going to see some things on Saturday that they haven’t shown yet this season. Whatever wrinkles they worked on all offseason, I’m sure we’ll see them fairly quickly on Saturday,” Houston added.

Niumatalolo was non-committal when asked during the AAC teleconference how the East Carolina offensive and defensive schemes are different under Houston. Navy’s 12th-year head coach said: “You try to do as much homework as you can,” an indication the staff would be reviewing game film from Houston’s three seasons at James Madison.

East Carolina committed two crucial first-half turnovers, including one at the goal line on the game’s opening possession, in the loss to N.C. State.

“That game was a lot closer than the score indicated. I was impressed with (East Carolina’s) athleticism on both sides of the ball,” Niumatalolo said.

This is the seventh meeting between the schools with Navy holding a 6-1 lead in the series, which began in 2006 when Paul Johnson and Skip Holtz were the head coaches in Annapolis and Greenville, respectively. The Mids have used their patented triple-option offense to run roughshod over the Pirates in the past, winning 76-35 in 2010 and 56-28 in 2012 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

However, East Carolina earned its line victory over Navy in 2011 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, winning 38-35 as quarterback Dominique Davis set two NCAA records. Davis broke the marks for consecutive completions overall (36) and in one game (26) that were originally set by current Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers.

Navy fans will remember that game for a controversial call in which an apparent touchdown catch by wide receiver Matt Aiken was overturned because he did not control the football all the way to the ground while going down in the end zone.

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