East Carolina University’s football team opened its 2019 season with a 34-6 loss to North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, not yet a year removed from losing to the Wolfpack 58-3.
The Pirates began their opening drive on a promising note.
ECU received the opening kick and looked poised to draw first blood in Carter-Finley stadium. A 12-play, 75-yard drive saw sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers complete six straight passes and led his team to the cusp of a touchdown just minutes into the contest.
Unfortunately, fate and the NCSU defense would not allow the Pirates to notch their first touchdown of the season and what would have been their first, in two games against the Pack.
A fumble by Ahlers at the one yard line was recovered by Wolfpack sophomore defensive back Tanner Ingle, shifting the initial tide of the game.
“Football’s a momentum game, I fumbled it, that’s on me. We’re a better team than that. We had a great first drive, we moved the ball, just gotta get better with that, learn from it,” Ahlers said during the post-game press conference. “Any time you can score right off the bat, that’s big so we just got to learn from it, get better from it, get ready for next week.”
Following ECU’s momentum-shifting turnover, the Wolfpack’s defense settled down, allowing just 73 yards of offense over the next three Pirate drives. Those drives notched a 47-yard field goal by junior kicker Jake Verity, helping the ECU respond after a NC State touchdown.
“What happened after that State settled down. They’re playing a new scheme. They settled into that new scheme after the first quarter and became a little more comfortable,” head coach Mike Houston said following the game.
NC State responded with a field goal of their own five minutes into the second quarter when sophomore kicker Chris Dunn knocked in a 27-yarder to extend the Wolfpack’s lead to 10-3.
Neither team would be able to score for most of the remaining quarter, but with just 51 seconds left in the first half, redshirt sophomore quarterback Matthew McKay scrambled for four yards to make it a 14 point game in favor of the Wolfpack.
The second half was completely dominated by NC State. Six minutes into the third quarter McKay connected with graduate student Tabari Hines for a 48-yard touchdown strike, making it a 24-3 game.
Neither team would add any points for the remainder of the third, but three minutes into the fourth, a 21-yard touchdown run from McKay would further stack the deck against the Pirates and make it a 31-3 ball game.
Seven minutes later, Dunn tacked on another field goal for the Wolfpack, this time a 34-yarder to extend the home team’s advantage to 34-3.
A 31-yard field goal by Verity with just 1:18 remaining in the game provided some sort of window-dressing for the Pirates, erasing the possibility of another three-point performance.
After its first drive, the Pirates struggled to move the ball for the rest of the game. Ahlers finished 22-of-39 for 168 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. As a testament to NC State’s defense, or perhaps the game-planning of the Pirates, Ahlers finished with just an average of 4.3 yards per completion.
“I think he’s better than what he played and I think he’ll say the exact same thing. I love him, I’m glad he’s our quarterback,” Houston said of Ahlers following the game. “I didn’t think he had the kind of performance today we expect from him and that he expects from himself.”
For the Wolfpack, McKay finished 25-of-37 for 308 yards and a touchdown, while averaging 8.3 yards per completion.
The Pirates struggled even more to establish a run game. Five rushers including Ahlers and back-up quarterback Reid Herring combined for a total of 29 rushes and accumulated a mere 41 yards, averaging just 1.4 yards per carry.
“We got to do a better job. I thought we ran it good in the first quarter and I thought that was the real key to the struggles the rest of the game was that we were very good on first down in the first quarter,” Houston said. “And then second quarter on, we struggled on first down, which, you put yourself in second and long situations consistently, it’s hard to keep drives sustained.”
In the drives following a missed 52-yard field goal early in the second quarter, the Pirates found themselves in plenty of those situations as they combined for just 31 yards over the next four drives spanning the remainder of the second quarter.
By the middle of the third quarter, the Wolfpack had built a commanding lead, making it relatively impossible for the Pirates’ offense to come back.
That being said, there was a glimmer of hope for ECU in the middle of the third quarter. Redshirt freshman Tyler Snead caught and returned a Wolfpack kickoff, returning it inside State’s 10 yard line in what would have given the Pirates great starting field position. Instead, a member of the return team was called for an illegal block in the back, knocking ECU back to their own seven yard line and killing any momentum for the visiting team.
The Wolfpack would outscore ECU 10-3 after that penalty, capping a rout of the Pirates in the season opener.
ECU will host its first home game of the season at Dowdy-Ficklen against Gardner-Webb University next Saturday, Sept. 7, at 6 p.m.