Five questions to ponder before kickoff

The four games involving in-state teams are highlighted by a rare Triangle matchup between Duke and NC State

Holton Ahlers threw for 222 yards and three touchdowns in last week's win against South Florida (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

The coronavirus pandemic has already had a negative effect on East Carolina’s 2020 football season.

Not only was its preseason camp temporarily halted because of a COVID-19 outbreak, but it had to wait three weeks into the schedule before it got a chance to play a game because of cancellations and postponements.

Now, just as it appears as though the Pirates have finally begun to gain some continuinty coming off their first win, the virus may be throwing another monkey wrench into coach Mike Houston’s plans.

Speculation is rapant that star quarterback Holton Ahlers won’t be available for today’s game against Navy at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium because of either a positive COVID-19 test or contact tracing.

With or without Ahlers, the game is expected to be played as scheduled. It’s one of four games involving five North Carolina teams on the docket today — including a rare in-state showdown between NC State and Duke. While we’re waiting for the games to kick off, here are five questions to think about and consider.

1. What does ECU do if Ahlers isn’t available?

Ahlers is coming off his best game of the young season, a win at South Florida last Saturday in which he completed 17 of 26 passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns — including two to his favorite target, C.J. Johnson. He was also the team’s second-leading rusher. But if the Pirates have to at it without their best player, the starting nod will likely go to true freshman Mason Garcia.

A four-star recruit from Myrtle Beach, the 6-foot-5, 238-pound Garcia has the credentials to get the job done. But he’s seen action in only one game, going 0 for 2 with a 10-yard rush mopping up in a loss at Georgia State two weeks ago. As iffy as the quarterback situation might be, it could be the least of ECU’s worries against a Navy team that has dominated the series between the AAC rivals. The Midshipmen have won six of seven all-time matchups, scoring 42 or more points in each of the six wins.

2. Can NC State bring the momentum it gained on the road back home with it to Carter-Finley? 

The Wolfpack has been one of the surprise teams of the ACC so far this season and are coming off two straight road wins. The most impressive thing about State’s 3-1 start is that all three of the wins have been achieved in different manners. The first, against Wake Forest, came on the strength of a strong running game. The second, at Pittsburgh, came courtesy of Devin Leary’s arm before the defense took center stage last week.

So now coach Dave Doeren and his team return home for the first time in a month to play their first game this season as a favorite. It’s the kind of scenario in which the Wolfpack has traditionally laid an egg. If this really is a different State team — and it’s looked the part so far — this is the time it will show.

3. Has Duke finally figured out how to stop beating itself?

After four straight losses to start the season, the Blue Devils got into the win column last Saturday with a 38-24 victory at Syracuse. It was a game in which Duke rolled up 645 yards of total offense and got 160 or more yards on the ground from both Deon Jackson and Mataeo Durant.

But as impressive as those numbers are, they should be taken in the context that they came against a struggling Syracuse team that is an underdog against Liberty this week. It should also be noted that quarterback Chase Brice still threw an interception — his eighth of the year — and lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown in the game. The Blue Devils probably won’t be able to get away with it again if they continue to give the ball away against a team such as NC State.

4. Has UNC’s offense finally kicked into high gear?

Expectations can be a fickle thing. Take quarterback Sam Howell and the Tar Heels’ high-powered attack. Yes, their first two efforts were pedestrian by comparison to last year’s record-setting standard. But they were still both good enough to win. Some of the offensive “struggles” — including Howell’s inability to complete a pass longer than 20 yards downfield against either Syracuse or Boston College — can be traced to the distruption in UNC’s schedule caused by the cancellation of a nonconference game against Charlotte.

Whatever the problem, it was erased last Saturday after Howell threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns, the running game erupted for 399 yards and the Tar Heels put 56 points on the board against Virginia Tech. They’ll have a chance to put up more big numbers tonight against a 1-3 Florida State team that has been a dumpster fire under new coach Mike Norvell.

5. How sharp will Wake Forest be nearly a month since its last competitive game?

The Deacons are dealing with a similar issue to the one UNC faced earlier this season. Because of postponements and a scheduled open date, they’ve played only one game in the past month. And that was little more than a scrimmage, a 66-14 rout of FCS opponent Campbell. Coach Dave Clawson will undoubtedly have his team prepared to play Virginia today, but there will almost as certainly be some rust to shake off. How long that takes will go a long way toward determining the outcome.

One thing Wake has going for it is the Cavaliers penchant for turning the ball over. They did it four times last week against NC State, and if starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong is healthy enough to play, he’s liable to help the Deacons get back into the swing of things by throwing an interception or two.

That’s enough for this week. Stay safe and enjoy the games!