Blackout game

Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers takes a snap during this year's blackout game.

Much has been said and written about the East Carolina University (3-4, 0-3 AAC) football team’s inconsistent offense this season. Varying greatly with their strength of schedule, the Pirates entered Saturday’s matchup with the University of Central Florida (5-2, 2-1 AAC) ranked 99th in the FBS in total offense (363.5 yards per game).

ECU’s struggles moving the football, particularly through the air, is a problem this program is not familiar with. Entering Saturday, the Pirates led the AAC with nearly 21,000 passing yards since joining the conference in 2014 and had also racked up a conference-best 16, 400-yard passing games.

In order to achieve those numbers, ECU had relied on talented wide receivers like Zay Jones and Trevon Brown, both of which recorded two 1,000-yard seasons for the Pirates during their collegiate careers.

Unfortunately for the Pirates, finding success through the air has not been as easy this season compared to past campaigns. Under first-year ECU head coach Mike Houston, more emphasis is being placed on running the football. Through the team’s first six games, the Pirates rushed for 965 yards, giving this year’s squad the fourth most yards on the ground in program history through six games since 2000.

On Saturday in Orlando, Florida, the Pirates rushed the football 49 times for 170 yards, the second most attempts and third most yards by the team this season. Against a stout UCF defense, however, ECU found little success, both in the air and on the ground in the first half. On 27 rushes, freshman running back Demetrius Mauney and company racked up just 65 yards as the passing attack also struggled to get off the ground.

Across the ball, however, UCF had little trouble building a hefty lead early in the ball game. On five consecutive drives to open the contest, the Knights found the end zone as they racked up 191 passing yards to ECU’s 29 in the first quarter.

“They’re (UCF) very skilled and very good at what they do,” Houston said via Stephen Igoe of “If you make a mistake, they’ll make you pay. That’s what happened on those drives. We gave up leverage on the slant route. We gave up leverage on the post route. And we got beat over the top on the take off. I do think our kids settled down once they got accustomed to the speed.”

By the conclusion of the first quarter, the Pirates found themselves down 21-0 and in an even deeper 35-6 hole at halftime. Freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel was a near perfect 17-for-22 through the air and had already racked up 274 yards. His No. 1 receiver, junior Gabriel Davis, accounted for 115 of those first half yards, hauling in seven catches and two touchdowns.

The Pirates, on the other hand, were sitting on just 180 yards, 74 of which came on their final drive of the half, one that resulted in a 29-yard field goal by junior kicker Jake Verity.

“We kind of narrowed down our focus (at halftime),” Houston said via Igoe. “You had to decide how you wanted to play them. They really put a lot of stress on you. I thought our kids really responded well in the second half. The one thing I told them at halftime was they’re going to be defined by how they responded after halftime.”

Challenged not to give up by their head coach at halftime despite the hole they had dug for themselves, the Pirates came out clicking on all cylinders in the second half. What was a lack of stops for ECU’s defense turned into a lack of yardage for UCF’s offense.

On their first four drives of the closing half, the Knights punted three times and fumbled, shifting the momentum back to the visiting squad. With that lift, the Pirates climbed back into the ball game, capitalizing on a blocked punt with a one-play, one-yard touchdown drive to kick-off the second half.

No doubt aided by their special teams effort, the Pirates’ offense looked like a completely different animal following the break. Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers helmed ECU’s first drive with just nine completions in the two previous quarters while no Pirate running back cracked 35 yards prior to halftime.

Looking to make a difference in the game’s closing 30 minutes, however, Ahlers’ inconsistent and often inaccurate passing turned into good throw after good throw to receivers who showed excellent ability hauling in catches.

At the forefront of the Pirates’ passing attack, similar to last week, was freshman wide receiver C.J. Johnson. One week after recording his first 100-yard game at the collegiate level, the freshman was back at it in Orlando, grabbing eight passes for 106 yards.

“I think C.J.’s doing a great job,” Houston said via Igoe. “He’s a young man that really wants to be good. He’s driven by that. You can see he had a chance to be special. In the second half there, they were playing man under and a safety over the top of him. We were trying to take advantage of that and we were able to on that final drive.”

While Johnson’s longest catch, a 26-yarder, came in the first half, he still caught passes of 18 and 19 yards in the third and fourth quarters to aid in his quest for 100-plus on the evening.

Johnson was not alone in his big-play ability down the stretch on Saturday. In all, the Pirates utilized five chunk plays longer than 20 yards to score 22 points in the second half and make the game competitive.

Ahlers, on two occasions, rushed for 20 yards, punching one into the end zone late in the third quarter to solidify ECU’s comeback attempt. Thought the air, however, Ahlers was even more impressive. Harkening back to last season when he racked up over 1,500 yards through the air in limited action, Ahlers unleashed big play after big play.

On five of the Pirates’ drives in the second half, Ahlers was accountable for at least one play over 15 yards, either on the ground or in the air. In the fourth quarter alone, Ahlers was responsible for 127 passing yards on seven completions, hooking up with freshman wide receiver Tyler Snead on an eight-yard touchdown pass to cap ECU’s scoring in the fourth quarter.

“I would have been really disappointed if we didn’t come out and play the way we did in the second half,” Houston said via Igoe. “I’m disappointed about the first half. I’m disappointed about the loss. There’s no doubt. But we’re getting there. I’m telling you, what you saw in the third quarter and the latter part of the fourth quarter was a physical, hard-nosed football team.”

ECU’s turnaround was not limited to just the offensive side of the football in the second half. A defensive unit that allowed over 400 yards prior to halftime forced four UCF punts, a fumble and two turnovers on downs in the closing 30 minutes.

While it ultimately allowed north of 600 yards to the Knights, the most allowed to an opponent so far this season, there was a noticeable difference in the effort level of ECU’s defense in the second half.

“I’m so proud of the way the kids competed, I’m proud of the fight,” Houston said via Igoe. “I’m proud of the way they hung together. The determination. They’re becoming what we’ve talked about wanting to become.”

Like Houston alluded to, his football team has yet to reach the desired level he has set forth for this program. However, steps are being taken by the men on the field as represented by the Pirates’ second half comeback against a superior team like UCF. The next step, of course, is winning games like the one on Saturday and that begins with not digging such a big first half hole, something that can be cleaned up by further reducing small fundamental mistakes.

The Pirates will be back in action on Saturday inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for their homecoming game. Kickoff between ECU and the University of South Florida (3-4, 1-2 AAC) is scheduled for 3:45 p.m.

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