ECU opener spoiled by UCF juggernaut

The Pirates were no match for the nation's 13th-ranked team, which rolled up more than 600 yards of total offense on the way to a 51-28 rout

Central Florida quarterback Dillon Gabriel runs while ECU linebacker Xavier Smith chases during Saturday's game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

East Carolina’s long-awaited 2020 football opener wasn’t worth the wait.

After having their first two games either canceled or postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Pirates’ return to action was spoiled by a Central Florida juggernaut that rolled up more than 600 total yards while scoring early and often on the way to a 51-28 victory at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

ECU didn’t help itself by turning the ball over four times, including three lost fumbles before halftime. But that only served to make UCF’s task just a little easier  Led by quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who threw for 408 yards and four touchdowns, the nation’s 13th-ranked team had its way with new coordinator Blake Harrell’s defense on the way to its 37th win in its last 41 games dating back to 2017.

Holton Ahlers threw for three scores of his own for the Pirates, two of which came in the game’s final seven minutes — long after the game was out of reach.

Three thoughts

1. ECU coach Mike Houston said that he wanted his team to get off to a fast start in an effort to keep UCF’s up-tempo offense from getting into an early rhythm and the Pirates achieved half that goal. They started quickly by taking the opening kickoff and controlling the ball for nearly four minutes while driving 75 yards on nine plays for the game’s first score. But the momentum didn’t last. After Holton Ahlers’ 17-yard touchdown pass to Darius Pinnix, the Knights’ offense answered back with 40 unanswered points to blow the game open.

2. UCF tried its best to give ECU an opportunity to stay in the game by committing 13 penalties, including seven false starts, but the Pirates didn’t make their opponent pay for its sloppiness. UCF still managed to extend drives and get into the end zone by converting six of its first 10 third down opportunities. For the game, the Knights committed 19 penalties for 139 yards.

3. Harrell was the architect of championship defenses at Kennesaw State and The Citadel before coming to ECU this season. While his aggressive scheme might ultimately help the Pirates turn things around, it didn’t make a positive first impression. ECU had few answers for a balanced offense that ranked second in the nation last season and is headed in that direction again after accounting for 29 first downs, 408 yards through the air and 224 on the ground.

Number to know

47.8 — The average number of points UCF has scored against the Pirates over the past four meetings between the AAC rivals. The 51 points allowed on Saturday were the second-most during that stretch, behind only the 63 points the Knights put on ECU in 2018.

They said it

“Our offense is better than what we put out there today. I’m better than what I put out there today.”

— ECU Quarterback Holton Ahlers

Player of the game

Holton Ahlers, ECU quarterback — Admittedly, Ahlers didn’t have his best game by a long shot, but the junior quarterback did have manage to have his moments against a tough UCF defense. He completed 14 of 29 passes for 215 yards and touchdown passes to Darius Pinnix, C.J. Johnson and Tyler Snead. He as also ECU’s second-leading rusher with 55 net yards on 12 attempts.

Critical Thinking

If ECU is looking for a silver lining to an otherwise dark opening day, it’s that it at least made it to the field and actually played a game after having its first two contests either postponed or canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

As for the game itself, the Pirates can take solace in the fact that they probably won’t face a better opponent all season than the one they played Saturday and that, COVID-19 willing, they will have plenty more opportunities to improve in Year 2 of the Mike Houston era.