After winning its first game of the season last week against the University of South Florida the East Carolina University football team (1-3, 1-2 AAC) followed it up with a 27-23 loss against The United States Naval Academy (3-2, 3-0 AAC).
Going into the game, the Pirates were without several key players due to COVID-19 testing protocols. The Pirates had to play without Junior quarterback Holton Ahlers, senior safety Tank Robinson, junior running back Darius Pinnix, sophomore outside linebacker Damir Faison and sophomore running back Demetrius Mauney. According to Head Coach Mike Houston, there was only one positive test and the rest were out due to contact tracing.
Griffin Ahlers, brother of the Pirates’ regular starting quarterback Holton Ahlers, took to twitter to express his displeasure with how Holton’s status for game-time was handled.
“It is what it is. It's what we have to deal with in 2020,” Houston said. “It is certainly something that is out of my control, it is out of the kids control. You hate that it happens, our kids have done a great job with handling protocols, it is something that we have to deal with.”
The Pirate defense started strong, picking off senior quarterback Dalen Morris on the fourth play of the opening drive by Navy, the defense’s third pick in three games. However, the offense now led by true freshman quarterback Mason Garcia, sputtered and went a quick four and out and were unable to capitalize on the turnover.
Navy’s second possession ended very differently. In a six play drive without a single pass, senior running back Nelson Smith stumbled into the endzone on a 20 yard rush. Navy was able to gash the Pirate defense on the drive as junior running back Jamale Carothers also had a 20 yard rush on the drive.
ECU’s second drive had more success, resulting in a 40 yard field goal by senior kicker Jake Verity. The field goal was followed up two plays later by a fumble recovery by the Pirates at the Navy 25 yard line. However, once again the Pirate offense stalled and was unable to get into the endzone. Jake Verity finished the drive with his second field goal of the game, this one from 25 yards out.
By the end of the first quarter, Navy led 7-6 despite the fact that ECU out-gained them by 35 yards with team totals of 96-61 and had forced two turnovers while the Pirates committed none themselves.
The start of the second quarter was more of the same for the Pirates. The team was able to muster a bit of offense and after an 18 yard completion to graduate transfer wide receiver Audie Omotosho, the Pirates were knocking on the door of the endzone once again. However, the ECU drive stalled out and the Pirates were forced to settle for a field goal which was blocked by Navy’s senior defensive tackle Tobe Okafor.
It wasn’t until there was 7:03 left in the second quarter that the Pirates found the endzone. An eight play, 44 yard drive ended in a three yard touchdown run by Garcia. Verity’s extra point gave the Pirates a 13-7 lead and their first of the game.
The Midshipmen quickly responded with an impressive scoring drive of their own, a seven play, 75 yard drive that lasted just 3 minutes and 15 seconds. The drive was highlighted by a 32 yard rush by senior running back Nelson Smith and was capped off by a nine yard touchdown run by Morris. However, the extra point was missed by sophomore kicker Bijan Nichols.
Neither team scored for the rest of the half. Both teams relied heavily on their ground attack in the first half. Navy only threw the ball four times and ECU passed just 12 times. For the Pirates Garcia finished the first half 5-12 for 53 yards while Morris for Navy went 3-4 for just 30 yards. Meanwhile, both teams had over 100 yards rushing in the first half. Navy finished with 131 while ECU had 127.
“The effort they gave today and the adversity they have had all week this week and the way they compete, the way they care about each other, the way they trust us as coaches. It has been so hard to get to this point.” Huoston said. “This team is going to get better every single week, we have a lot of season left.”
ECU’s drive to open the second half ended in a fumble by freshman running back Rahjai Harris which was recovered by Navy’s sophomore linebacker Tama Tuitele. The ensuing Navy drive ended in a quick four and out as the Pirate defense held firm.
Navy would retake the lead with 8:51 to go in the third. A 29 yard touchdown run by Smith capped off a 3 play 59 yard drive and a good PAT by Nichols put the Mids ahead 20-13. Navy would add another touchdown as the third quarter came to a close. Carothers ended the 12 play, 50 yard drive with a three yard touchdown run and the good PAT made it a 27-13 game going into the fourth quarter.
ECU quickly struck back with an 80 yard touchdown run by Harris and Jake Verity's good extra point made it a one score game again with 14:15 left in the fourth quarter. The Pirates would draw the game even closer eight minutes later after two bad snaps forced a 39 yard Jake Verity field goal to make it a 27-23 ball game.
Neither team would score for the rest of the game and a fourth and two conversion allowed Navy to run down the clock to just 22 seconds remaining before punting the ball back to ECU who wasn’t able to score a touchdown with the little time remaining.
“Obviously having Holton back there, he has had a lot more experience, a lot more time playing.” Graduate student offensive lineman Fernando Frye said. “But Mason can definitely fill in for that position when we need him to.”
Navy was almost entirely reliant on its running game with 52 attempts compared to just five passes thrown all game. The Mids accumulated 288 rushing yards amongst eight different rushers and had a team average of 5.2 yards per carry. Navy was led by Smith who had 17 attempts for 157 yards and two touchdowns and an incredible 9.2 yards per carry.
All game Navy was able to gash the Pirates defense. Getting chunk yards proved to be no problem as five of the Mids eight rushers averaged four yards per carry. Despite that ECU’s defense kept the Pirates in the game with one sack, four tackles for loss, and two turnovers throughout the game while junior linebacker Xavier Smith led both teams in total tackles.
“We knew going into this game it was going to be a fight.” Smith said. “Whoever is more physical and whoever wants it more is gonna win this game. I personally feel like that didn’t reflect the score today, but I feel like the guys on the defense and the offense came out there and we gave them a fight today.”
For the Pirates, having a new quarterback taking snaps really showed. Garcia was 10-20 passing with just 104 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.
As a unit the Pirates had 45 rushes for 268 yards and two touchdowns. Harris by himself had 172 of those yards and a touchdown on 22 carries for an average of 7.8 yards per carry.
“Coming out here today I felt like I just had to do it,” Harris said. “I had the team on my back and the offensive line played great, the whole team played great, we just couldn’t get the win today.”
The Pirate offense left two potential touchdowns on the field with a couple of drives where they were in the red zone and just couldn’t finish. Twice in the first quarter the Pirates had to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns and in the second quarter the Pirates had a field goal blocked.
The Pirates have a bye week this upcoming week and will have an extra week to prepare before they play at Tulsa University on Oct. 30 with kickoff scheduled for 9 p.m.