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Ahlers the bright spot in another loss for Pirates

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It was another 20-plus point loss at the end of Saturday night, but there was one big reason for optimism from ECU fans going forward following the team’s 37-10 setback against UCF. 

True freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers lived up to much of the hype surrounding his first start in the purple and gold, quieting any notion he would struggle to pass the ball at the college level by completing 29-of-53 attempts for 406 yards and a touchdown against a top-10 opponent. As expected, Ahlers did have his ups and downs. He was responsible for three turnovers — one interception and two fumbles — but accounted for 475 of the team’s 496 yards of offense.

Ahlers, a dual-threat quarterback from D.H. Conley High School in Greenville, was asked to carry the ball a team-high 27 times for a net gain of 69 yards. All other ECU running backs combined for only 11 carries.

“He went all the way through his reads about eight to nine times in the game,” said head coach Scottie Montgomery, whose team is enjoying its open date before a Nov. 3 matchup with Memphis. “That’s a lot of growth. But we’ve still got to be smart enough to not throw too much at him too soon.

“If everybody else will learn and put in the work that he put in this past week, I feel really, really good and really confident about the production we will start to have.”

Ahlers’ most glaring mistake came on the backbreaking fumble inside the UCF 5 after a 95-plus yard drive. Down 23-10, ECU had a third-and-goal from the Knights’ 2-yard line in the fourth quarter. Ahlers attempted a jump pass, but lost control of the ball, fumbled and it was returned 94 yards for a game-changing touchdown. Outside of that and another fumble on his fourth straight carry at one point in the first half, Montgomery and the Pirates liked what they saw. 

The quarterback showed the ability to step up in the pocket and throw downfield when needed, but he also escaped pressure several times and made multiple plays on the run with his arm and legs.

“He had a few freshman mistakes,” Montgomery said. “The one thing I’ll say is there were a few mistakes that looked like they were his mistakes, that were mental errors at our outside positions. Since we’ve really done a good job of bringing the offense to Holton, everybody’s having to learn a few new things. We talked about how the playbook was going to grow in a different direction, and we had a few guys who didn’t make as many plays on the perimeter with their minds as they needed to.”

The 6-foot-3, 236-pounder leads the team in rushing yards (317), rushing touchdowns (five) and yards per carry (4.9), but with so much on his plate now as a young quarterback, Montgomery and offensive coordinator Tony Petersen agreed giving the ball to their quarterback nearly 30 times in the ground game probably isn’t a sustainable attack method going forward.

ECU’s offensive line is currently missing two starters due to injury in center John Spellacy and right guard Branden Pena, so the Pirates have relied on Ahlers’ legs and utilized the running backs as extra blockers to open up runs at times.

“You don’t want a quarterback carrying it 27 times, but the flip side of that is we’ve got to do what we have to do to move the football,” Petersen said. “If for some reason we cannot run the football with the running backs and we have to run the football with the quarterback, we’ll do it with him, and we’ve got to protect him. He’s also got to take care of himself better. The first fumble he had, he needs to follow the guard right there, stay away from the contact and protect the football and his body.”

Ahlers, who was made available after the game for interviews to the media for the initial time since enrolling at ECU, made it clear he wasn’t content with his performance, despite all the yards he may have compiled.

“We got some yards, but not good enough,” Ahlers said. “We didn’t win and I had three turnovers. That’s on the offense. I told the defense that’s on the offense, we put them in bad situations.”

But for any ECU fan with realistic expectations, Ahlers’ performance was a positive first step in what the Pirates hope is the first of many to come. And for Ahlers, getting the opportunity to live out his dream inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium this past weekend was a moment he will never forget, regardless of the final score.

“Honestly, it didn’t really hit me and it just felt like a football game, until right before kickoff and I started warming up,” Ahlers said. “It hit me I’m about to start where I want to be and really imagined myself as a kid.”

TURNOVER WOES

ECU’s problems in the turnover department were only further exacerbated in the team’s loss to UCF. The Pirates once again out-gained their opponent, but fell well short on the scoreboard thanks to five turnovers on the offensive end and zero takeaways forced by the defense.

The Pirates now sit last nationally in both turnovers forced (3) and turnover margin (-12), which has played a big part in their 2-5 record overall and 0-4 mark in American Athletic Conference play. ECU has shown flashes of being a solid football team when it has protected the ball, outgaining foes 2,903 to 2,534 overall through seven games.

“We’ve got to do our part on takeaways,” defensive coordinator David Blackwell said. “Offensively, we’ve got to quit giving it away and defensively, we’ve got to take it away. It goes both ways. At the end of the day, five turnovers and us getting none (vs. UCF), it’s hard not to say that’s the difference in the football game. We very easily could’ve won that game without that. 

“And if we can create some takeaways and put our offense in some situations where they’re on the plus side of the field and things like that, that makes a big difference.”

Despite the lack of turnovers forced, ECU ranks 48th nationally in total defense, second in tackles for loss and is tied for third in sacks. The offense, meanwhile, has witnessed several promising scoring drives halted by ill-timed giveaways.

“There were some positives from the game, but the glaring negative is the turnovers,” Petersen said. “I’ve been in this thing a long time and you’re just not going to win ever turning the ball over five times.”

AD DECISION COMING SOON?

Speculation was swirling earlier this week when the ECU Board of Trustees met on campus Tuesday for more than two hours in a meeting believed to be primarily athletics-related. 

Board chairman Kieran Shanahan couldn’t disclose what was discussed in the closed session per state laws, but indicated finding an athletic director and settling on leadership at the top of the athletic department may have been on the agenda. ECU hasn’t had an AD since Jeff Compher accepted a $1.2 million buyout in March and resigned. Dave Hart has served as a special advisor to Chancellor Cecil Staton for athletics since mid-March and Lee Workman is currently acting as the chief operating officer over athletics.

But the uncertainty at the top of the ladder, especially given the ongoing struggles of the football program, has created plenty of angst among Pirate fans. 

“The leadership of our athletics department is really key and when the time is done, we hope we’ll have something novel, interesting and thoughtful as we position East Carolina into the future,” Shanahan said. “The process has been ongoing. Many questions that are being raised are legitimate and Pirate fans want to know, and they want to know now.

“But we’re trying to be thoughtful and strategic about it. We’re also constrained because someone might be in a current job or might be looking for a job and the last thing they want is their employer to know what we’re doing. So we have to respect that and respect state law. But I assure you, it has the administration and the board of trustees’ absolute undivided attention. We are working very diligently on it and we hope to advance the ball with some announcements sooner than later.”

When Shanahan was asked if Hart was a part of Tuesday’s meeting, he couldn’t comment. 

Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.

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