Going into Saturday’s matchup against North Carolina State University, Pirate head coach Mike Houston knew how vital it would be to get East Carolina University’s running game going.
“I do think it’s very important for us to be balanced,” Houston said in the days leading up to the game. “In order for us to be able to throw the ball effectively, we’re going to need to be able to run the ball effectively.”
Running the football is something the Pirates struggled with last season under Scottie Montgomery as they totaled 1,556 yards on the ground as a team, with quarterback Holton Ahlers leading the way with 592 yards. Anthony Scott racked up over 400 yards in 2018, but is no longer with the team after graduating, leaving the running duties to junior Darius Pinnix Jr. and senior Hussein Howe.
Combined, that duo logged an average of 3.6 yards per carry on their 126 attempts last season, hardly an inspiring number for the new coaching staff to work with this season.
On Saturday, fans received their first taste of Pirate football in the Houston-era. A lackluster showing on both sides of the ball resulted in a 34-6 loss at the hands of the Wolfpack and provided multiple learning points for ECU’s program.
Perhaps most importantly, it showed just how vital running the football will be this season, especially as opposing defenses begin figuring Ahlers’ tendencies under center. A strong first quarter saw the Pirates possess the football for nine of the 15 minutes and rack up 115 yards of total offense (86 passing yards, 29 rushing yards).
Solid runs by Pinnix allowed Ahlers to be perfect through the air on the Pirates’ opening possession, before a fumble in the endzone by the sophomore quarterback ended a 12-play drive.
“That was a big play in the ballgame cause that completely changed the outlook of the first half,” Houston said in a press conference after the game. “If you go into the end of the first half tied or ahead, then obviously that’s a completely different mindset coming out of the tunnel in the second half. So we’ve got to take step one, which is where we are and we’ve got to start getting better.”
Following that opening drive turnover, NC State seemed determined to keep the Pirates out of their territory.
“Last year we played ECU in three down (three linemen on the line of scrimmage) the entire game,” Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren said. “When (co-defensive coordinator) Tony Gibson got here, we are kind of bridging the gap from third down to being able to play it on first and second. We feel like it gives us a lot more answers for RPO football.”
Obviously, with a mobile quarterback in Ahlers, ECU loves the run-pass option on offense. After the first quarter, however, the Pirates were able to generate very little production, either through the air or on the ground.
From the opening quarter on, the Pirates ran the football 19 additional times, racking up just 12 more net yards. Pinnix was at the heart of ECU rushing attack as he paced the team with 11 carries and 23 total yards. Ahlers gained 35 yards on 10 carries but was sacked three times and had only 11 yards by the contest’s conclusion.
Howe was almost non-existent in the run game on Saturday, earning five carries for eight yards. All told, the Pirates finished with 41 rushing yards and averaged just 1.4 yards per carry. For perspective, the Wolfpack racked up 191 yards on the ground (31 attempts) for an average of better than six yards per carry.
After the first quarter, ECU managed only 0.63 yards per rush, and amassed negative-five yards on nine attempts on the ground in the second half alone.
“We’ve got to give our backs room to move,” Houston said post-game. “I thought we did a good job of that in the first quarter. 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.”
Without a reliable run game, NC State turned the pressure up on Ahlers, sacking him in each of the second, third and fourth quarters. That pressure also forced the sophomore quarterback to throw an interception in the second quarter, a game-altering moment as ECU was down just one score at the time.
With two turnovers to his credit, Ahlers finished the game with 168 passing yards on 22 completions as the Pirates struggled to eclipse 250 yards of total offense.
“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 post-game. “I didn’t think he had the kind of performance today we expect from him and that he expects from himself.”
Houston was quick to assure the media he was not hanging the loss squarely on Ahlers’ shoulders, but rather on the team as a whole. Obviously, that begins with the offensive line’s ability to open holes for the running backs to maneuver and ends on the defensive’s ability to get stops.
On Saturday, despite allowing 505 yards of total offense to State, ECU’s defense played well and garnered multiple stops, holding the Wolfpack to a 4-for-12 showing on third down. Nevertheless, the Pirates’ offense was unable to break through for anything meaningful on the ground, shifting the game-plan to a one-dimensional, pass-heavy attack in the second half.
Not only did that not work, but it resulted in junior punter Jonn Young having more punt yards (343) than ECU had total yards of offense (269). If the Pirates wish to be successful this season, and all signs point to them being better than last year’s 3-9 record, that will need to change.
“The kids were fantastic during walk-through this morning. They were great during pregame warmup,” Houston said post-game. “They were ready to play. They were excited to play, and you can tell that with the way we started the ball game. We’ve got to take today and build on it.”
ECU will open its home schedule at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday against Gardner-Webb University at 6 p.m.