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East Carolina’s offensive explosion in this past weekend’s 46-43 loss to Cincinnati came as a shock to nearly everyone.
After sputtering for much of the season when it came to moving the ball and scoring points, the Pirates racked up a season-high 638 yards of offense against one of the stingiest defenses in the league in the eventual heartbreaking, last-second loss. The Bearcats escaped the upset on Sam Crosa’s 32-yard field goal as time expired at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
At the end of the night, it was another frustrating final result, and ECU is still looking for its initial win of American Athletic Conference play of the Mike Houston era, but there was certainly a lot to build upon.
Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers had the best game of his career, completing 32-of-52 passes for a school-record 535 yards and four touchdowns through the air. He also ran for a score. A costly pick-six late in the fourth quarter was his only real blemish. Much of Ahlers’ production came thanks to freshman wide out C.J. Johnson. The two former D.H. Conley High teammates connected 12 times for a program and conference-record 283 receiving yards.
The Pirates compiled 43 points as a team on Cincinnati, which was allowing just 20 points per game entering last Saturday’s game. ECU even scored more points and totaled more yardage than Ohio State did against Cincinnati in a 42-0 win earlier this season.
“I think any drive we had, I don’t think there was ever a hesitation that we were going to score,” Ahlers said. “That’s kind of the first time I’ve felt that in a while here.”
Ahlers was averaging less than 200 yards per game passing this season and had just seven touchdowns and seven interceptions entering the contest. At times, he looked hesitant in offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick’s scheme under head coach Mike Houston. But a light seemed to switch on this past Saturday. Ahlers threw the ball with authority, squeezing the ball into tight windows and scrambling outside the pocket and making plays with his legs on the move. It was more of what ECU fans were used to seeing down the stretch last season when he put up big numbers as a true freshman in his first handful of starts.
“You’ve seen this coming where he’s understood more and more of the offense each week,” Houston said. “No doubt it was his best game of the year. But I can promise you, this is not going to be the last game he has like this either. He’s going to continue to improve the more comfortable he gets with that offensive scheme. I think he’s feeling more comfortable with Coach Kirkpatrick and obviously you’re seeing that production on the field as a result.”
It helped, of course, that the players around Ahlers did their jobs, too. A banged up offensive line down three starters performed well in pass protection all night long, keeping Ahlers upright and not allowing a sack.
Various receivers stepped up and made contested catches, as Johnson wasn’t the only one to have a big night. Sophomore Blake Proehl snagged eight catches for 105 yards, and true freshman Jsi Hatfield had six catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore tight end Zech Byrd also corralled his first college touchdown reception.
“I think one thing we’ve seen from Saturday night is we can do this, we can play with anyone in the conference,” senior offensive lineman Branden Pena said. “I feel like we’ve shown strides of it from some earlier games this year, but it came together more this game. We’re highly motivated going forward.”
It didn’t take long for Ahlers and Johnson to go from smashing records on the high school gridiron to doing the same in college.
Just nine games into Johnson’s career, and in the midst of Ahlers’ second season as the Pirates’ starting quarterback, the former Conley duo was virtually unstoppable against the Bearcats this past weekend.
Johnson accounted for more than one-third of Ahlers’ 32 completions on the night with 12 grabs, and more than half of his yardage output of 535 passing yards.
And Johnson still felt he could have done even more damage.
“He’s a great player,” Ahlers said of Johnson. “We always joke he comes back to the huddle and says he’s open on every play. He believes that, and I believe he can make pretty much any catch.”
ECU’s offense got humming in the first quarter when Johnson beat one-on-one coverage down the sidelines and Ahlers delivered a perfect ball in stride. Johnson took it for a career-long 75-yard touchdown catch, and never looked back on the way to the big outing.
After an expected up-and-down start as a freshman, Johnson has become the focal point of the offense the last few weeks, putting together three 100-yard games in the last four outings.
“At the beginning of the season, it took a little while for me to understand the speed is different in college,” Johnson said. “But as we grow and the more we practice, the more me and Holton get that chemistry back.”
Ahlers threw for more than 400 yards twice last year in his first two starts as a true freshman, but Saturday night was the initial time he crossed that barrier under Houston’s staff. Ahlers shattered the previous individual single-game passing yardage record, surpassing Shane Carden’s mark of 480 yards at Tulane.
“It means a lot,” Ahlers said. “Growing up in Greenville, and coming to games, I thought about what I could be here. It means a lot. A win would mean a lot more, but we’ll build from it and go from here.”
NO. 23 MUSTANGS AWAIT PIRATES
East Carolina will get its second consecutive shot at a ranked foe from The American as it travels to Southern Methodist University this Saturday for a noon kickoff from Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas.
The Mustangs, who were ranked 15th, are coming off their first loss of the season, a 54-48 setback at then No. 24 Memphis in a matchup of ranked teams where ESPN’s College Gameday was present. Second-year head coach Sonny Dykes has the Mustangs’ offense clicking at an extremely high level, averaging 43.5 points and 509.6 yards of offense per game.
Texas graduate transfer quarterback Shane Buechele has paced the offense, completing 63 percent of his passes for 2,781 yards, 23 touchdowns and seven picks. Senior receiver James Proche had more than 1,000 yards last season and he’s once again the go-to guy on offense with 74 grabs for 841 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Mustangs also have two talented senior running backs they lean on in Xavier Jones and Ke’Mon Freeman. Jones has 906 yards and 15 touchdowns through nine games.
Defensively, SMU can be a bit boom or bust. The unit has given up 30.6 points per game, but it has also forced 17 turnovers and it leads the nation with an average of 4.4 sacks per game. Auburn linebacker transfer Richard McBryde leads the defense with 65 tackles.
“The thing with SMU is they can do it all,” Houston said. “They’re very explosive offensively. Defensively, they’re a multiple four-down, three-down group. Very athletic. They’re very diverse on the backend with their coverages and do a lot of things back there. They’re going to take chances. They’re going to be very aggressive. They’re going to make some big plays. Hopefully we can capitalize and maybe make some big plays of their own.”
Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.