Offensive explosion gets ECU into win column

The Pirates’ offense and defense came together to give East Carolina it’s first win of the season

ECU quarterback Holten Ahlers. (AP Photo/Stephen Dunn)

The 2020 season hasn’t gone exactly according to plan for the ECU football team.

It took three weeks for the Pirates to get onto the field for the first time because of COVID-19 related cancellations and postponements, and then once they did, they wound up on the wrong end of two lopsided scores.

Saturday, coach Mike Houston and his team finally got a chance to take out some frustration on the only team picked to finish below them in the American Athletic Conference standings.

Holton Ahlers threw for 216 yards and three touchdowns while true freshman Rahjai Harris ran for 123 yards and a pair of scores on the ground as East Carolina (1-2, 1-1 AAC) used a first half blitz to cruise to a 44-24 win against South Florida (1-3, 0-2) in Tampa.

Three things

1. C.J. Johnson was ECU’s top playmaker a year ago with 54 catches for 908 yards, but through the first two games this season he’d only touched the ball three times. Houston made getting Johnson more involved a priority, and he came through in a big way.

Although the sophomore caught only three passes, he made the most of them — picking up 99 yards and two touchdowns. His 75-yard connection with Ahlers late in the first quarter sparked a run of four touchdowns in a five-possession span, helping ECU turn a 10-6 lead into a 31-17 halftime cushion.

2. After allowing 51 points to Central Florida in its opening performance and 49 points last week at Georgia State, ECU’s defense was a vastly improved unit against USF. The Pirates sacked quarterback Jordan McCloud five times and forced two turnovers while allowing only 92 yards on the ground. They nearly pitched a shutout after halftime, allowing only one window dressing touchdown with just 32 seconds remaining.

3. ECU had been its own worst enemy in those two opening losses, averaging 101 yards in penalties and turning the ball over three times in each game while allowing their quarterback to be sacked six times. Saturday, though, the Pirates played a remarkably clean game. They were flagged for only three penalties and didn’t turn the ball over. Not only did the offensive line keep the Bulls away from Ahlers, allowing only one sack while giving him ample time to throw the ball, it also paved the way for a career performance on the ground by Harris.

Number to know

2014 — That’s the year in which the Pirates last beat USF. Saturday’s win broke a five-game losing streak to their AAC rival, a stretch in which the Bulls outscored ECU by an average margin of 16.1 points per game. Even with the victory, the Pirates still trail the all-time series 9-2.

Player of the Game

Holton Ahlers, ECU quarterback — For the first time this season, the junior was able to show why he was named to the preseason All-AAC team by completing 17 of 26 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns. His first scoring pass was a 2-yarder to running back Darrius Pinnix that erased an early 7-3 deficit. He also connected with Johnson on strikes of 75 and 14 yards. Ahlers added six carries for 35 yards.

They Said it

“I feel like a weight’s been lifted off our shoulders. I told (the players), ‘Don’t listen to anybody outside of our locker room. There’s a lot of haters out there, a lot people doubting, don’t listen to them because we’ve got a say in how we perform.’ I thought the kids responded with a lot of enthusiasm. The celebration in that locker room was special.”

— ECU coach Mike Houston

Critical thinking

It’s been hard for the Pirates to get any momentum going because of the disjointed nature of the season, but this win can’t help but boost the team’s confidence and perhaps build some momentum. Ahlers has proven he can sling the ball around with the best of them when he gets time to throw, and for the first time Saturday, he did.

The most encouraging aspect of the victory, however, was the performance of the Pirates’ defense. That’s been a sore spot dating back before Houston took over and wasn’t much better during the first two games of this season. But if the strong second half against the Bulls is any indication, new coordinator Blake Harrell’s system may finally be starting to click. A big test will come next week when ECU returns home to play Navy and a triple-option attack that has traditionally given it fits.