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Pirates just can’t catch a break vs. AAC foes

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When it comes to finding ways to win in the American Athletic Conference on the football field, East Carolina just seems snakebitten.

After four lackluster and turnover-filled offensive performances to start league play 0-4, ECU fixed things on that side of the ball in a major way, only to see its much-improved defense suffer its worst game of the year, allowing nearly 60 points and more than 600 yards of offense in a 59-41 loss to Memphis this past Saturday inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

The game against the Tigers was looked at as a potential turning point in ECU’s season. With winnable games ahead against Memphis, Tulane and UConn, ECU fans held out hope the Pirates could rattle off three consecutive victories to draw the team’s record back to .500 and pull itself back into bowl contention. Instead, the Pirates suffered a fourth straight loss, falling to 2-6 overall and 0-5 in AAC play. 

ECU had been limited to four total touchdowns in four AAC games in prior outings, but the insertion of standout true freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers has ignited the offense the past two contests, as the unit has compiled nearly 1,000 yards combined in his two starts. Unfortunately for head coach Scottie Montgomery and his coaching staff, much of that turnaround was forgotten at the end of Saturday due to the defense faltering, making the latest loss all the more frustrating.

“This is not like our defense to come out and play the way that they played this past week,” Montgomery said. “Collectively, we’ve got to put it together where we play defensively as well as we did in the early part of the season and our offense will start to play a little bit better. We will have a better flow and movement like we talked about three weeks ago. Those two things together, will give us a chance to be really successful down the stretch here.”

But for Montgomery, time is running out to get both phases clicking at the same time. Despite improvements from a competitive standpoint at times this season, the losses continue to pile up. Montgomery is now 8-24 in his three seasons as ECU’s head coach. More disappointing is his 3-18 AAC record, including 16 double-digit losses in league play (and only one of those such setbacks was by less than 14 points). 

The good news for ECU is Ahlers continues to provide a bright light at the end of the tunnel for the football program. After throwing for 406 yards in his first start, a 37-10 loss to UCF, Ahlers did even better against Memphis. Playing a turnover-free game, Ahlers completed 34-of-62 passes for 449 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed 17 times for a net of 57 yards, accounting for more than 500 yards of offense in one game.

Ahlers’ skill-set, including his ability to escape the pocket and extend plays, has brought a new dynamic to the Pirate offense that it was previously missing with original starter Reid Herring. When initial reads break down, Ahlers has created a number of plays by rolling to his right and left, and either running or throwing the ball downfield. He used that ability on one such play to hit wide receiver Trevon Brown for an exciting 31-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter to tie things at 31-31 versus Memphis.

Now the hope is to recapture the early-season defensive success the Pirates had when they travel to Tulane this weekend.

“I think we’ve found a few things offensively by a complete restructure of our offense three weeks ago with Holton,” Montgomery said. “We’ve got to take our defense on the road and play well. That’s why we had a chance at South Florida. Our defense has to go on the road and play well. Now we’ve added a quarterback, that we’ve got to protect, that can move the ball as long as he continues to grow in the offense, which I know that he will.”

FIGHTING FOR BOWL ELIGIBILITY

The chances may seem bleak on the outside looking in, but the positive mindset ECU has maintained through its struggles on the field all season has the Pirates still hoping to make a late-season push to become bowl eligible.

ECU will have to win out against a challenging schedule to make it happen. This weekend marks a matchup at Tulane, which has won two games in a row. The Pirates then host 1-8 UConn, before finishing the season against two ranked opponents on the road in Cincinnati and NC State.

“That’s always the goal. It’s not like I like losing,” senior wide receiver Trevon Brown said. “I’m out here to play. I’m lucky to not have an injury. I’m out here balling and I give it everything I got every week. We just need to start 1-0 every week. That’s where we’re going to start this week.”

Senior linebacker Cannon Gibbs, a team captain on defense, echoed Brown’s feelings. 

“Going to a bowl game is definitely a goal that’s reachable and that’s our plan,” Gibbs said. “But right now, each game, we plan on being 1-0 after each week to get to that. We plan on taking it incrementally to get to that ultimate goal.”

Three of ECU’s final four games this season are on the road. The Pirates have won just one game away from home in the Montgomery era.

TULANE PREVIEW

What looked like a potential easy win against Tulane a few weeks ago now looks like the complete opposite. 

Sitting at 2-5 earlier this season, Tulane has rattled off two consecutive road wins, scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown to win at Tulsa before crushing South Florida in Tampa in surprising fashion, 41-15. Tulane, which utilizes a spread option attack, ran for 368 yards and passed for only 61 yards on 11 attempts at USF. 

Much like ECU, Tulane has made a quarterback switch after its early struggles. Senior Jonathan Banks was benched two weeks ago in favor of LSU transfer Justin McMillan. Running back Darius Bradwell leads the Tulane rushing attack with 652 yards and eight touchdowns. Corey Dauphine is averaging 7.9 yards per carry and has 635 yards and seven touchdowns.

“They’ve got confidence, they can run the football,” defensive coordinator David Blackwell said. “They explosive-played South Florida to death. Guys weren’t fitting right and all of a sudden the ball is gone and they kind of did the same thing to Memphis earlier in the year. It’s a team that if you take them lightly, they will sting you. They’ve got good running backs and they’re good up front. It’s the same deal every week in this league. There are no off weeks in this league. Everyone is good.”

Kickoff on Saturday from Yulman Stadium in New Orleans is set for 4 p.m. EST. The game will be televised on ESPNews.

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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