ECU falls behind, can’t catch up against Tulane

The Green Wave used big plays and a disruptive defense to beat the Pirates 38-21

Quarterback Holton Ahlers and the Pirates dropped their third straight game with a 38-21 home loss to Tulane. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

East Carolina dropped its third straight game Saturday, losing 38-21 to Tulane at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville. Pirates quarterback Holton Ahlers threw for 351 yards and three touchdowns, but ECU managed just seven first-half points and was unable to erase a 14-point halftime deficit.

Three thoughts

1. ECU’s decision to go for it just past midfield on fourth-and-1 late in the first quarter of a 7-7 tie proved to be the tipping point in the game. After a first down completion by Ahlers to Blake Proehl for eight yards, the Pirates failed to convert on the next two plays. On fourth down, Ahlers’ attempt to Shane Calhoun was incomplete.

“The one we have third-and-short, fourth-and-short, I go for it on fourth down, we don’t get either one of them,” ECU coach Mike Houston said. “You look at the games we’ve played really well, we’ve gotten those. … You’ve got to be able to convert those short-yardage deals. We’ve been doing that really well the past several weeks; we did not do that well today. We’ve got to really take a hard look at why we didn’t.”

Tulane took over, and on the next play, Cameron Carroll rushed 44 yards to the ECU 10. Three plays later, quarterback Michael Pratt hit Tyrick James for a 5-yard score and a 14-7 lead the Green Wave would never relinquish.

2. The ECU offense came out in the second half with two carries for 12 yards by Rahjai Harris, a sign that the Pirates’ rushing attack — and offense as a whole — could get on track after struggling in the first half and perhaps cut into Tulane’s 14-point lead. But Ahlers was sacked on the next play and, after a 10-yard completion on second down, was sacked again and fumbled on third down, though ECU recovered.

The Green Wave were stopped in Pirates territory on fourth down of the ensuing drive, but they scored on their next two to extend the lead to 31-7 and dominate the third quarter.

3. East Carolina’s running game never got going, and Harris was held to just 27 yards on 13 carries after three straight games of rushing for more than 100 yards. In all, the Pirates managed just 35 yards on the ground on 29 carries — an average of just 1.2 yards per carry.

It was an issue Houston said the staff and players would look hard at ahead of Friday’s game against No. 6 Cincinnati.

“Obviously, they did a great job,” Houston said of Tulane’s defense. “They had a solid plan to take it away from us. We’ve got to see why that happened. I know that several times today, we’d have one guy getting beat for one reason or another, so we’ve got to look at why that happened. Did that happen because of technique? Did that happen because we’re tipping something formational or alignment-wise?

“We’ve got to figure out just why that happened that they were really able to nullify us to the extent that they did today.”

Number to know

13 — Receptions for Proehl for 182 yards, including scores of 30 and 75 yards in the fourth quarter for the Pirates. The Green Wave took away Tyler Snead most of the game — he had just six touches for 63 yards, plus a touchdown — but Ahlers was able to find Proehl again and again as the Pirates went to the air while playing catch-up. Proehl, who had 25 catches coming into the game, had a previous career-best of 11 receptions against Georgia State on Oct. 3 and smashed the 105 yards he had last season against Cincinnati. It was also the first two-touchdown game of his career.

For historical purposes, older brother Austin had eight catches for 120 yards for UNC in a 2017 loss to Louisville, while father Ricky had 185 receiving yards for Wake Forest in a loss against Duke back in 1989.

Player of the Game

Cameron Carroll, Tulane running back — It only took six carries, but Carroll piled up 129 yards and two long second-half touchdown runs of 48 and 28 yards to put an end to any hopes the Pirates had of coming from behind.

They said it

“Learning how to play with praise is very important. And people say it all these different ways. But the really good teams I’ve had, they could drown out all the noise around them so very well. … Learning how to play with praise is learning how to be a winner.”

— Mike Houston, ECU coach

Critical thinking

The Pirates have the main piece that makes an offense go in Ahlers, but ECU’s inability to protect its quarterback undermined its entire attack Saturday. Ahlers was sacked five times — three by Tulane senior end Patrick Johnson — and hit or hurried repeatedly.

Throw in that the Pirates’ defense gave up 493 yards — including 277 on the ground — and that ECU could do nothing with the running game, and Houston still has a lot of work to do to turn around the program.