East Carolina prepares for trip to Tulane

Both teams are coming off conference road victories

East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

GREENVILLE — East Carolina heads to Tulane this weekend for a key game that will not only impact the American Athletic Conference standings but could also determine if the Pirates return to a bowl game this season under coach Mike Houston.

The Pirates (3-2, 1-1) and the Green Wave (4-1, 1-0) both won on the road last weekend, bouncing back from home losses the week prior. ECU delivered a convincing 48-28 win at South Florida, while Tulane pulled out a 27-24 overtime win with their third-string quarterback at Houston.

It was a step forward for both programs after each suffered three-point losses the week before, with the Pirates losing to Navy and the Green Wave falling at home to Southern Miss.

ECU will be looking to build off the 575 yards of offense its offense piled up in the win over USF when it visits Yulman Stadium on Saturday.

Pirates quarterback Holton Ahlers was named the AAC’s Offensive Player of the Week after his 465-yard, six-touchdown performance, while wide receiver C.J. Johnson had seven receptions for 197 yards and three touchdowns in the win.

The situation at running back isn’t as rosy.

The school announced Monday that Rahjai Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury against USF, a game that Keaton Mitchell dressed for but did not play in after getting hurt in the Navy game. Harris and Mitchell have combined for 624 yards and eight touchdowns this season.

Mitchell could play a limited role against the Green Wave, but freshman Marlon Gunn Jr. will continue to have an expanded role in Harris’ absence after totaling 61 yards on 15 carries last weekend. It will be a homecoming for Baton Rouge native Gunn, who received an offer to play at Tulane but instead decided to play in Greenville.

For the Green Wave, starting quarterback Michael Pratt will be back in action after being hampered by a recent shoulder injury. The junior has completed 63.5% of his passes for 905 yards and seven touchdowns with three interceptions.

“He’s just an awesome young man,” seventh-year Tulane coach Willie Fritz said of Pratt and how he supported backup quarterbacks Kai Horton and Justin Ibieta last week. “We expect nothing less from him. It’s just the way he was raised, the way he operates, and that’s how you’re supposed to be. I always tell these guys, ‘If you’re not going to root for your buddies, get into MMA fighting.’”

ECU’s defense will also need to contain Tyjae Spears. The fourth-year running back carved up the Houston defense for 139 yards from scrimmage last week, posting team highs in rushing (35) and receiving (85) yards.

Running back Iverson Celestine (202 yards rushing) and wide receiver Shae Wyatt (220 yards receiving) are also threats on Tulane’s offense.

While the Green Wave’s offense has gotten the job done this year, it has been the team’s stout defense that has provided consistency. Tulane’s passing defense is allowing only 123.6 yards per game, best in the nation thanks to standouts like cornerback Jarius Monroe and defensive end Keith Cooper.

With Ahlers and the Pirates’ offense firing on all cylinders, the matchup of ECU’s passing attack and Tulane’s defense could determine the outcome.

“I’ve known Coach Fritz for a long time. … I have such respect for him,” fourth-year Pirate coach Mike Houston said. “I knew he’d have them turned around. I was watching them play and they are very solid defensively. Very good offensively at all the standup positions.

“To be able to go in with your backup quarterback, and then a young quarterback to be able to win that ball game, that’s a very impressive win. Obviously we’ll have our hands full going down there to New Orleans next Saturday night.”