RALEIGH — The names, the faces and many of the coaches on both sides have changed, but the result was a familiar one for the football rematch between NC State and East Carolina on Saturday.
Though the final margin was slightly less lopsided than the 58-3 beatdown the Wolfpack put on the Pirates to finish the 2018 regular season last December, coach Dave Doeren’s team was just as dominant in the opening game of the new campaign.
Quarterback Matthew McKay threw for 308 yards and accounted for three touchdowns in his first career start to spoil the coaching debut of ECU’s Mike Houston and lead State to a 34-6 victory at Carter-Finley Stadium.
“The first play I went out there, I took a deep breath and said, ‘OK, we’re playing football. So I wasn’t nervous or anything,” said McKay, a redshirt sophomore who spent last season as a backup to NFL draft pick Ryan Finley. “I was definitely prepared for the moment.”
McKay completed 25 of 37 passes and threw for a touchdown while rushing for 35 yards and two other scores in joining Philip Rivers (2000) and Harrison Beck (2007) to throw for more than 300 yards in his first Wolfpack start.
But he was hardly the only newcomer to make an immediate impact in a retooled State offense, led for the first time at home by new co-coordinators Des Kitchings and George McDonald.
True freshman running back Zonovan Knight ran for 42 yards and scored a touchdown on his first career carry and graduate transfer Tabari Hines got on the board with a 48-yard reception while left tackle Emanuel McGirt anchored a line that didn’t allow a sack in addition to alertly making one of the biggest plays of the game.
Although there are still plenty of rough edges to smooth out, there were even more things on which Doeren and his staff can build before the schedule gets tougher with a trip to West Virginia in two weeks.
“A lot of good things happened today,” Doeren said. “We’ve got to clean up some things, obviously, but a lot of positives. … We’re 1-0. Half the teams in the country are not. It’s good to be on that side of the ledger.”
Houston didn’t have quite as optimistic a take on an ECU performance that featured many of the same shortcomings as the 3-9 team led by now former coach Scottie Montgomery.
The Pirates couldn’t run the ball, gaining just 41 rushing yards on 29 attempts, while also failing to protect quarterback Holton Ahlers, who spent most of the game running for his life and getting hit far too many times while going 22 of 39 for 168 yards and an interception.
Although the defense gave a much better accounting of itself than it did in that December debacle, there were still too many breakdowns that led to big plays of 48, 45, 34 and 21 yards.
And then there were the mistakes — the most costly of which came on the game’s opening possession.
With Ahlers completing his first six passes, ECU drove 75 yards all the way to the Wolfpack 9. But just when it seemed as though the Pirates were ready to build some momentum and take an early lead, Ahlers fumbled just before he got to the goal line on a quarterback keeper. State’s Jarius Morehead recovered in the end zone to end the threat.
The Wolfpack made the Pirates pay an even greater price for the turnover by marching quickly back in the opposite direction for a touchdown that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
“Opening drive, we came out and had a great drive, moving the ball down the field,” Houston said. “We were on the goal line going in and we’ve got to control the ball all the way through the end zone. They don’t give any ribbons for coming close. That was a big play in the ballgame because it completely changed the outlook of the first half.”
The Pirates still managed to stay close and trailed only 10-3 after an exchange of field goals before another fumble changed the outlook of the rest of the game.
It happened late in the half when McKay had the ball jarred loose as he closed in on the end zone. Unlike Ahlers, he was saved by one of his teammates — in this case McGirt — who alertly fell on the fumble to save the possession.
“I was about to fall on the linebacker and finish the block,” McGirt said. “When I saw the ball, I just fell on it. That was real important, because in the red zone, you’ve got to score points.”
The Wolfpack did just that on the next play when McKay pushed a pile of blockers and defenders over the goal line for a 17-3 lead. The young quarterback scored again on a 21-yard run and hooked up with Hines for a 48-yard touchdown as State began to pull away in the second half.
Just as they did the last time these teams met.
“We had a game plan,” said cornerback Chris Ingram, who had an interception to go along with a team-leading nine tackles. “We scouted these guys really well. We knew they were going in with a chip on their shoulder after what we did to them last year. As a team we have a goal set and we met it today.”