GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) -- East Carolina hosts No. 18 Houston this weekend in the Conference USA championship game, which will mark another step forward for Skip Holtz's program in Greenville.
The Pirates (8-4, 7-1 C-USA) are hosting the league title game for the first time. They won the league crown last year by winning at Tulsa, and now have the chance to become the first team to win consecutive C-USA titles since the league went to divisional play four years ago.
Holtz has guided the program through a steady building process in his five seasons. The Pirates reached its first bowl game under Holtz in 2006, then won a bowl in 2007. Last year, the Pirates were nationally ranked early in the season on the way to that league title, the first such crown for the program in three decades.
East Carolina University Head Football Coach Skip Holtz addressed members of the media prior to this week's Conference USA Championship game against Houston. The following are selected comments:
On The Atmosphere Surrounding The Program :
"It's an exciting time with everything that's happening right now with ECU football having the opportunity to host the championship game, winning the division last week and getting a handle on the bowl scenarios.
"We're also trying to close out this semester and put a December schedule together because there is so much up in the air. We're trying to get the players a schedule so they can make flights home for the holidays and those kinds of things. There are an awful lot of things going on right now. We're making sure everybody is staying on top of things academically, too.
"It's a busy time, but the alternative was to lose that game Saturday to Southern Miss. I like where we are and what we're going through right now. I'm certainly not complaining about all the things we have on our plate.
"It's arguably, one of the most exciting times in ECU football history. We have the opportunity to do something that has never been done in the Conference USA two-division format, become back-to-back league champions."
On The Southern Miss Win:
"What a great college football game. It was a great game with two teams that were incredibly competitive, determined and strong willed. Both teams were playing for the same thing - the East Division title and the opportunity to represent the division in the championship game. Neither team flinched or bent. Both teams made plays on offense, defense and special teams. It was a great college football game.
"I could not be more proud of the team and their focus and determination. We made some mistakes as Southern Miss made some big plays on both sides of the ball. But at the same time, we never hung our heads. Our kids continually played hard and made it a 60-minute game. I'm really proud of what this football team was able to accomplish."
On The Offense Against Southern Miss:
"Offensively, having over 400 yards against that football team was impressive. Our points certainly didn't equal our output. We had 172 yards rushing and were 50 percent on third down, allowing us to control the ball and the tempo of that game. That was huge for us.
"The offensive line played really well. The second-half of the season, we've put our saddle on the line. The unit has really done a nice job. Dominique Lindsay is running well and doing great things up front.
"Patrick Pinkney didn't turn the ball over and managed the game well. He did a really nice job in that game. If you can take something back, you'd love to have the deep ball that we threw when we were backed up early. I wish we could have hit that pass. Outside of that, Pinkney turned the ball accurately and was into the game and focused. He made some plays with his feet, too. He scrambled around when protection broke down. He went back to the old Pinkney a little bit where he was running for a first down and making some things happen. He really added another dimension to our offense, one that we've been missing. We really need him to do that, especially this week.
"Dwayne Harris is special. He's a unique player. To see the determination he played with, aside from his talent and speed, was great. You have to tackle him. He started churning his legs and put his head down. It was a physical game and he made it that way. He matched the physical nature of the game. I thought Harris was a real difference maker in the game.
"Darryl Freeney continues to come along, grow up and mature as a football player. Alex Taylor, a senior, stepped up and had another big day. I'd like to see him protect the ball a little bit better after his fumble in the second half. But aside from that, he really had some big, key catches for us. There were a lot of great individual efforts on the offensive side of the ball."
On The Defense Against Southern Miss:
"On defense, we did what we were trying to do and kept the ball in front of us. We kept them out of the end zone for the most part and didn't give up the big play.
"The front four, again, played great. Scotty Robinson, for the third week in a row, played well and is really starting to make his presence felt. Both defensive ends are playing well. Linval Joseph inside is like Harris and is a special talent. Jay Ross and Joseph give us a real push. Athletes on the perimeter like Robinson and Wilson give you the chance to have a pretty good defensive football team.
"At linebacker, Nick Johnson is like Lindsay to me. I marvel at what Johnson is going through and how he doesn't want to take himself out of the game. He just keeps throwing his body around. He had another very active day being all over the field. Johnson and Jeremy Chambliss really had a strong performance.
"Probably the gutsiest performance on defense would go to Emanuel Davis. He played with unbelievable emotion. He had a challenge to shut down one of the best receivers in this league in DeAndre Brown. I thought Davis did a great job. We put him in some man coverage situations. I thought he really rose to the occasion and played well."
On The Game-Changing Play:
"The defense played solid. Probably the game-changing play was when Wilson went up the middle, blocked the PAT and ran it back. Southern Miss was looking to take the 21-20 lead. Wilson blocked it and all of a sudden, East Carolina is up two points. I think that was a huge momentum swing. Not only that, but then the offense went down right after that and kicked a field goal. That made it a five-point game. It was a team win."
On The Special Teams Against Southern Miss:
"Ben Hartman stepped up. He's really kicking well toward the end of the year. We put him in there to do a couple kickoffs for us, too. He did a great job with the squib kicks. He is really smart. He does a nice job of reading their return. We were doing a couple kickoffs where he needed to check with me at the line. He was going to squib it, pouch it or kick it deep. He did a really nice job of handling that responsibility.
"He's the all-time field goal leader now and really did a nice job for us.
"We netted 50-yards punting, which is a tribute to Matt Dodge and the cover team. The unit did a great job of getting down the field."
On Hosting The Conference Championship:
"It was a great win Saturday and a special win. There is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm among the players and the program. We have the opportunity to keep playing. But we have an even bigger challenge this weekend playing for the conference championship.
"We're excited about the opportunity to host this game and play it in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in front of our home crowd."
On Houston's Offensive Scheme:
"We get the opportunity to play Houston this week. I said this last year when we played Tulsa for the championship - we're playing a team that puts up video-game type numbers.
"In conference games, Houston is scoring 47 points a game, averaging 602 yards per game and passing for 455 a game. The team is number one in passing efficiency and is averaging 32 first downs a game. In all games, Houston is first in the conference in turnover margin at plus-12. All of those statistics rank near the top nationally as well.
"They are explosive and can score from anywhere. They put up huge amounts of points and yards with what they do."
On Houston's Defense:
"When you look at them, what makes it so hard to keep up with them is how good they are in pass coverage. Their pass defense is really strong, ranked second in the league in conference games. They don't give up a lot of third-down conversions and get you in passing situations because their offense can score so quickly. Rice was down 59-0 at halftime last week. You can't come out with a run-oriented plan when they start throwing those types of numbers around.
"One of the reasons I think they're so good on defense is because of their personnel. They also have a good scheme. Their defensive success is also because it's what they see every day in practice. We will have a hard time simulating Case Keenum, the speed they have at the receiver position and throwing the ball around. But their defense sees that type of speed every day. When they go to practice, the game is then almost in slow motion."
On Case Keenum:
"Offensively, it starts with Keenum. He's a Heisman Trophy candidate. His numbers are better than anybody's in the country. He has thrown 38 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. Last year when he came to Greenville as a sophomore, I said he was one of the best quarterbacks we had played against since I've been here. I was extremely impressed with his poise, presence, arm strength and decision making. Now, as a junior, for him to do what he's doing is impressive. It starts with his confidence and timing.
"I keep talking about our running back Lindsay being decisive as a senior and making quick decisions. That's where Keenum is now. The ball is in the air long before the receiver makes his break. Houston's whole offense is predicated on timing. Keenum is an exceptional player."
On The Rest Of The Houston Offense:
"Bryce Beall and Charles Sims are exceptional running backs. As you try to stop the passing game, Beall and Sims are both averaging nearly five yards per carry.
"Their offensive line is very athletic. They're only asked to do three things: kick step for pass protection, which is what they do about 80 percent of the time, run the zone play and pull for screens. They run a lot of screens to get the ball to their athletes in a hurry. They're very in sync and know what they're doing. They do a really nice job with their scheme.
"Keenum has to have somebody to throw to. James Cleveland, Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards have 82, 75, and 74 catches, respectively. They have a great offensive football team putting up huge numbers."
On Houston's Defensive Players:
"Tyrell Graham, a defensive end, has seven sacks. The team gets pretty good pressure with their front four. Their two leading tacklers are their linebackers, Marcus McGraw and C.J. Cavness. They have 123 and 111 tackles. Our leading tacklers have 83 for comparison. Looking at them, the linebackers are very active and aggressive. They do a really nice job.
"Their free safety, Nick Saenz, is their third-leading tackler and that's largely due to everybody throwing the ball so much. Saenz has 101 tackles this season. Brandon Brinkley and Jamal Robinson are two great corners."
On Houston's Special Teams:
"The freshman place kicker, Matt Hogan, is 10-10 on field goals after taking over in the middle of the season. Their kickoff return team has also scored four touchdowns. They are explosive on offensive and special teams."
On The Challenge Of Playing Houston:
"It's going to be a heck of a challenge for us. This game is not going to be won on just defense. It's going to take all three phases of the game to win. They base their offense on how many plays your defense has been in the game. They'll go to a hurry-up tempo if they sense you getting tired. If you have a three-and-out on offense, they're going to come out and really speed things up.
"It'll be a challenge. Our offense is going to have to help our defense and our defense is going to have to help our offense. Our special teams are going to play a key role in the field position game. We're really excited to represent the east and play in the conference championship for the second consecutive year.
"It's a real tribute to these seniors and what they have accomplished. It was great to have the opportunity to say thank you to so many of them Saturday for Senior Day. I appreciate everybody who came out and supported the team last Saturday. I look forward to a great crowd this weekend."
On How Much The Team Has Prepared For Houston Already :
"When we came in here Sunday, that's when we started looking at Houston. I had not looked at a single snap of Houston until then. The only film I had looked at of Houston was when our scheduled opponents were playing Houston. We did not prepare forward for Houston. Last week was a winner-take-all game, so we didn't feel like we could put our time, effort and energy into next week when it wasn't guaranteed. We had to make sure we got here first.
"I told the staff last week to shoot every bullet in the gun. I didn't want anything left. I told him to leave nothing on the table. I didn't want to come out of Saturday's game saying we wish we would have done something else. I wanted us to shoot every bullet in our gun. This week we have to reload it."
On How Last Year's Game Against Houston Helps Prepare For Saturday:
"You definitely sit down and watch that. You have to study that film. That game is going to play into what they do. The game before that in 2007 is also going to play into it.
"As the year goes on, teams evolve and certain guys start to step up. Last year, our opponents wouldn't have gained a lot from watching Freeney, but you have to watch him now because of where he is.
"You need to put the most emphasis on their personnel from where they have been in the past three games. That's where we'll put the most emphasis. You have to study film from earlier this year and last year's film as well. Schematically, our defense has not changed. Offensively, they attacked our defense a year ago so you'll get an idea of what they'll try to do."
On Watching Film Of Houston's Losses:
"You sit down and look at it to see what those teams did to get a win. Houston has not won many games 14-13. You have to look at the flow of the contest and the offensive game plan has to match the defensive game plan. Probably more so in this game than any of the others that we've played this season. The two really have to work together. You can't take a defensive mindset where you're going to press them and try and force them three-and-out, just to control the ball on offense. You're going to have to look at whether you want to outscore them or whether you're trying to control the ball."
On The Similarities To Last Year's Championship Game :
"This is very similar to last year's game in a lot of respects. Statistically, the offenses are very similar, but the two styles are very different. Tulsa ran the motion and did it all by formations and gadgets. Houston is only going to line up in a couple formations.
"I don't think Houston ever sits down and watches opponents' game film. Houston can go out and run its offense on air. They do what they do. But yes, the numbers are very similar to Tulsa last year."
On Defensive Coverage’s Against Houston:
"It's very important to get pressure from the defensive line. We're going to have to mix things up. If you try and play them in zone, for a guy like Keenum, it's going to be like going against a pass skeleton. He'll get rid of the ball in a hurry. You're not going to get to a guy like him an awful lot unless things break down.
"We're going to have to do a great job of mixing coverage’s up. I thought Rick Smith and Greg Hudson did a great job of mixing things up Saturday. We were able to keep Southern Miss off balance. Southern Miss started strong early and made some big plays, but that was one of our adjustments. I think we're going to have to play man, all-out man and get after them and play zone as well. We have to make it all look alike. We're not going to be able to telegraph things to them."
On If Last Year's Win In The Championship Helps This Team:
"It probably helps more than anything from a confidence standpoint of our players. They've seen it before. We're going to have to do a lot against each other without the banging on the offensive and defensive lines this week. It's going to be very hard to simulate the speed at receiver and the nature in which Houston throws the ball."
On Linval Joseph's Touchdown Run Saturday:
"It was great to see Joseph go over the top. I didn't put a 320-pound guy in there to go over the top, I kind of wanted him to go through it. He did a great job, though. They had the replay of the Harris run and we knew that if it was called a touchdown we were going for the PAT, but if not, we were going to call the Joseph play. We had to wait for two minutes during the review and Joseph was a jitterbug. He was moving his arms and legs and was so nervous. We've practiced it for three or four weeks now. You keep practicing it and eventually have a chance to run it in a game. It was great to see.
"It was an emotional day for everybody, but walking in the locker-room and seeing the smiles on the faces of Joseph, Wilson and so many other guys are what makes coaching worth it. That's the reward that you get in coaching. That makes all the hours that you put in worth it."
On Dodge's Fake Punt Run:
"I love Dodge to death. I talked to Dodge last night and he told me that right before the punt, Robinson reminded him that it was only fourth-and-one. Right before the play Robinson said that, `if you want to go for it, I'll go get that guy.'
"It got in his head that he was looking to run it. We ran the rugby punt and anytime we run it, we give Dodge that option. I trust Dodge. We're better to trust him too much than to not trust him enough. He is a senior who has done a great job with it. I don't think he's made a poor decision with that yet.
"I went into the rugby punt because we were punting into the wind and I didn't want to give up a long return to their great return man. I wanted the ball on the ground so we could go cover it and flip the field.
"I think Dodge looked at it like here we go, I'm running for a first down. They were in punt-safe and had four linebackers and their defensive line in the game. I understand what he was trying to do. He got a little greedy. The intention was good, but the results weren't. I told him that if it was fourth-and-nine and he got eight I would have told him almost. Instead, it was fourth-and-one and we lost two yards. That was not a good decision. We'll still use the rugby punt. It adds another dimension to our punting team. Having a guy like Dodge who is able to punt or run is special."
On The Injuries:
"We're not going to get anybody back. We started to work with Jamar Bryant last week, but he had a little bit of a setback during practice. I still don't think he'll be able to go.
"At this point, we're not going to get anybody back, but it doesn't look like we lost anybody from last week's game either. We're going to play pretty much with who we played with Saturday."
On Keenum's Mobility:
"UAB ran their quarterback. That's what made Joe Webb different. Keenum is not a runner like Webb is. Houston doesn't have any designed run plays. But Keenum is extremely athletic to get away from the rush. He can create time for himself.
"You have to do a great job of containing Keenum. I thought our defensive line did a great job of that last week against Martevious Young. Keenum is athletic enough so you have to keep him in the pocket. You can't give up your edges and let him get out to the perimeter. He can buy time and that's where a lot of big plays come from. He has great field vision."
On Another Step Forward For The East Carolina Program:
"I think hosting this championship game and to keep with the momentum of the program is huge. That's something the seniors have looked at as their legacy. I don't think there's any doubt that they left it much better than they found it. That's something we have harped on.
"Scotty Robinson said it best when I had the seniors talk to the team Friday night. I had each one of the seniors talk about what the game meant to them. Robinson said, plain and simple, `If we don't win this one, this whole season has been a waste.'
"Those seniors really felt that if we didn't get here, we had thrown it all away. This was one of the goals that had been talked about and worked for. That's the standard and expectations the seniors put on themselves.
"That's why I think that locker room was the way it was after the game. They got it done and it was gratifying."
On How National Exposure Helps Recruiting:
"We've got four coaches out on the road today. We're in the juggle where we have coaches on the road and coaches here breaking down film. We have noticed a difference in our recruits with our national exposure and success.
"In all honesty, though, this year's success is playing into this year's class. The majority of the recruits who were here Saturday are from the 2011 class. Most of the 2010 class is pretty much wrapped up at this point. Recruiting is happening so much earlier that you're starting to see the benefits with the junior class and not necessarily the senior class.
"A lot of these recruits have no idea what's here. The excitement, emotion, enthusiasm and stadium atmosphere are great. People from all over say they have heard about East Carolina, but have never been here. All of a sudden, the recruits come and see the atmosphere that we have. They see the emotion on game day and the tailgating.
"I think that if we can get people to come look at East Carolina, you would have a hard time walking away not being impressed with the whole operation and how everything is done."
On Having Home-Field Advantage This Weekend:
"The crowd was a huge difference, especially in the fourth quarter. They were also a difference in the first half. In the third quarter there was a little bit of a lull. Offensively, we had a couple fumbles and didn't convert on the fake punt. We kind of took the crowd out of it. Momentum and enthusiasm went back and forth.
"In the fourth quarter, the crowd definitely swung things back in our favor. It makes a huge difference. When you're on the road and the crowd is going against you, you can't communicate and can't get everybody together.
"We're excited to have the opportunity to play the championship at home. It's great to be in the championship game, but it's definitely more gratifying for the seniors to play this game at home.”