Shorthanded ECU falls just short in loss to Navy

Playing without quarterback Holton Ahlers against a team it has struggled against in the past, the Pirates battled the Midshipmen until the end before falling 27-23

Navy wide receiver Mark Walker tries to hurdle over East Carolina defensive back Warren Saba during the Midshipmen's 27-23 win Saturday in Greenville. (Jacob Kupferman / AP Photo)

GREENVILLE — East Carolina’s defense took a major step forward against an opponent it has traditionally struggled against. But because of an offense depleted by COVID-19 issues and forced to play without starting quarterback Holton Ahlers, the effort wasn’t enough to prevent a 27-23 loss to Navy at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

The Pirates (1-3, 1-3 AAC) battled to the end, relying heavily on the running of freshman Rahjai Harris, but couldn’t get the ball back one final time to have a shot at pulling out the victory.

Forced to carry the load with true freshman quarterback Mason Garcia struggling in his first career start, Harris rushed for a career-high 172 yards on 22 carries to help ECU claw back into contention after falling behind by two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter.

But despite an inspired defensive performance that limited the effectiveness of Navy’s triple-option attack, the Pirates were unable to get the stop they needed on a fourth-and-2 play from near midfield with just over three minutes remaining, allowing the Midshipmen to run down the clock and preserve the victory.

Three thoughts

1. ECU’s defense has traditionally struggled against Navy’s triple-option attack. In the last three meetings between the American Athletic Association rivals in Greenville, the Midshipmen averaged 66 points and 584 yards per game — all wins. Saturday, though, new coordinator Blake Harrell’s unit rose to the occasion by yielding only 318 yards and 27 points. Linebacker Xavier Smith led the way with 15 tackles, tackle Rick D’Abreu had 10 tackles and a forced fumble, and the Pirates also forced two turnovers and kept the game within reach for an offense that needed all the help it could get.

2. About that offense. The Pirates were at a disadvantage from the outset when it was announced that starting quarterback Holton Ahlers would miss the game because of a COVID-19-related issue. Ahlers was coming off his best game of the season so far, but instead of building on his performance at South Florida last week, true freshman Mason Garcia played in his place. And Garcia looked like a true freshman. He did gain 63 yards on the ground, but he was just 9 of 19 throwing the ball for 88 yards.

3. One bright spot for the offense, however, was the play of another freshman — running back Rahjai Harris. The 5-foot-11, 228-pound South Carolina native ran for 172 yards on 22 carries, bettering the previous career high of 123 yards he had last Saturday at South Florida. Harris showed good patience waiting for holes to open and plenty of toughness while gaining yardage after contact. He also showed off some speed on an 80-yard touchdown run that got ECU back to within a score early in the fourth quarter.

Number to know

320 — The number of points ECU kicker Jake Verity has amassed in his career with the Pirates. That’s the most in school history. The senior added 11 more points to his total against Navy on Saturday with field goals of 40, 25 and 39 yards, along with two extra points.

Player of the Game

Rahjai Harris, ECU running back — On a day in which the Pirates’ passing attack was all but nonexistent, Harris wasn’t just the team’s main offensive threat — he was virtually its only viable offensive option. The freshman running back, who is well on his way to gaining star status, was a workhorse in rushing for 172 yards on 22 carries, highlighted by the aforementioned 80-yard touchdown run around left end.

They Said it

“Last year, that was the most humiliating loss of my career, and this team, the way they responded this week and the way they continue to respond every week, it’s what we’re trying to do. And I’m every proud of that group.”

— ECU coach Mike Houston on the Pirates’ 42-10 loss to Navy in 2019

Critical thinking

This one will go down in the loss column for the Pirates, and while there’s no such thing as a moral victory, there are more positives than negatives to come out of Saturday’s performance for Houston’s team.

ECU’s defense took another major step forward after a promising performance last week against South Florida. It limited the big plays that have traditionally haunted it against Navy’s triple-option attack and forced a pair of turnovers along the way. And it came about a yard shy of giving its team a shot at winning the game on a final drive.

Offensively, the Pirates get a mulligan because of Ahlers’ absence. At the same time, though, they may have found the long-term answer to their recent problems running the ball in the presence of young Harris. The game also gave Garcia, a four-star prospect with a high upside, his first taste of game action that will help him the next time he’s asked to play — perhaps as soon as next week. To his credit, he didn’t commit a turnover and ran the ball well.

Houston was emotional after the game, but not because of the loss. As much as he’d like to have won the game, in this case, the resilience and potential his team showed was even more important than the result.