The East Carolina University (3-2, 0-1 AAC) football team rode a strong defensive effort and timely offense to a 24-21 defeat of Old Dominion University (1-3, 0-0 C-USA) on Saturday in Norfolk, Virginia.
Entering Saturday night’s game in a hostile environment on the road, the Pirates were sporting a 1-17 record away from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium since 2016. That mark included a 10-game losing streak dating back to 2017 as the Pirates dropped the first two road games of the 2019 campaign.
“What a gutsy performance,” head coach Mike Houston said after the game.
On Saturday, while the offense sputtered at times, ECU’s defense played huge, helping the Pirates leave Norfolk with a rare road win. Despite the final outcome, the Pirates began their fifth game of the season and the slow side, botching the opening kickoff and forcing the offense to begin inside the one-yard line.
A delay of game on the first play from scrimmage is never ideal, but what followed permitted the visiting team to grab an early lead. On his first pass of the game, sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers found senior wide receiver Deondre Farrier over the middle for a 53-yard completion, quickly pushing ECU into Monarch territory.
“I think it was a big breath of fresh air for our fans, our team,” Ahlers said. “Obviously starting back that deep, it’s big but making a big play, ran a great route and he made a great catch as well.”
With the help of a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty on the defense and a key third down conversion, the Pirates’ nine-play, 87-yard drive was capped with a field goal by junior kicker Jake Verity.
ODU responded promptly with an 11-play, 66-yard drive on their opening possession, knotting the contest at three with 26-yard field goal.
Following a three-and-out by their offense, ECU defensive unit stepped up and began swinging the momentum away from the home crowd. After pinning ODU at their own 23 with a 47-yard punt, the Pirates preceded to back the Monarchs up four yards, forcing a punt after just three offensive plays.
Just moments later, the Pirates were dancing in the endzone on the heels of ECU’s first blocked punt since Sept. 3, 2016 against Western Carolina University (39 games).
“We talked about it in practice throughout the week, ‘don’t rough it,’ (the punter) all that, you can’t think like that, you got to take your shot. Go block the punt, stay fundamental, keep the right angle, go block the punt,” Houston said. “They did a great job staying away from the punter, got the block and the score. Obviously a huge play in the ball game.”
This time, it was back-up junior linebacker Warren Saba slipping through the defenders to register the special teams play, giving ECU a 10-3 lead and snapping a 47-game streak for the Pirates without a blocked punt returned for a touchdown.
Saba’s scoop and score also stands as his lone touchdown as a Pirate, a moment the young man will never forget. Following the game, Saba could be found still clutching the football he blocked as it symbolized a great achievement in his career.
“That’s the best feeling in the world, scoring a touchdown. It don’t get any better than that,” Saba said.
On the evening, ECU’s defense was far from done, as it shut down ODU’s offense on each of the next two drives. Particularly impactful on Saturday was the play of senior defensive end Kendall Futrell. Seemingly in on every stop, Futrell racked up seven tackles, including five solo, three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss, all good enough to pace the defense.
“We just wanted to play relentless and just have fun out there and execute our assignments. I think it was just a great team win all around,” Futrell said.
Offensively, the Pirates were able to extend its advantage to multiple scores in the early stages of the second quarter. Recognizing a one-on-one match-up with sophomore wide receiver Blake Proehl on the outside, Ahlers fired a strike to a streaking runner, resulting in a 72-yard catch-and-run. Perhaps the best offensive play of the season for the Pirates, Proehl’s reception pushed ECU’s lead to 17-3, 12 minutes before halftime.
“We saw on film that the safety would come down a lot and be flat-footed so we said we were going to take a shot during the game and we came through,” Proehl said.
Following that pass play, things began to trend sideways for the Pirates. A holding penalty and Ahlers’ first interception of the day gave the Monarchs excellent field position just 10 yards from the endzone.
For ECU’s defense, though, the challenges proved not too difficult as they forced a fumble from the ODU rusher as he crossed the goal line mere plays later. Senior defensive tackle Jalen Price punched the ball free and junior inside linebacker Bruce Bivens pounced on it, returning the ball 10 yards to the 11-yard line, eliminating any forward progress made by the home team.
“That critical, that’s the thing we’ve been missing a lot is being able to force those turnovers. What a great job stripping the ball on the goal line when the quarterback was going in, stuck the ball out and Bruce takes it away from him,” Houston said. “That’s a big play right there, because that could have been another momentum changer.”
On the Monarchs’ last offensive drive of the half, ECU backed them up 18 yards courtesy of a Futrell sack while the Pirates’ offense did just about the same, limping into the half with a 17-3 advantage.
Staked to a 14-point lead and with the ball after forcing a quick three-and-out to start the second half, all signs pointed to ECU being in the driver’s seat. In football, however, momentum can change with the next play, and for the Pirates, that’s exactly what happened.
Redshirt freshman Tyler Snead muffed a punt, giving ODU ample field position for its first touchdown of the game. A five-yard keeper by junior Monarch quarterback Stone Smartt cut the lead to one-score three minutes into the second half.
ODU would not be done, however, as ECU gifted the Monarchs another possession, this time on a tipped interception out of the left hand of Ahlers, his second of the game.
With the ball at ECU’s 46-yard line, the Pirates’ defense yielded a 16-yard pass completion from Smartt to redshirt senior wide receiver Hasaan Patterson helping to move the home squad into field goal range despite another Futrell sack.
Junior kicker Nick Rice’s 39-yard boot pulled the game even tighter at 17-13 ECU where it would stay until very early in the fourth quarter.
“To have all the adversity we had, and for whatever reason, whether it was our mistakes or things happening that didn’t go our way, we had a ton of adversity there in the third quarter,” Houston said. “I never saw anybody hanging their head, I didn’t hear any griping and belly-aching on the sideline, I saw a bunch of guys who were motivated, they were confident and they were ready to go back out on the field and play.”
After finding Proehl for the 72-yard touchdown in the second quarter, Ahlers failed to complete a pass (to his own team) on seven straight drives, forcing the Pirates to punt the ball a total of four times in that span. Luckily for Ahlers and ECU’s offense, however, the sophomore rediscovered his rhythm, hooking up with freshman wide receiver C.J. Johnson on a 21-yard pass completion, kicking off a long and important drive.
Two chunk plays, including a 28-yard pass to Proehl anchored an eight-play, 75-yard drive for the Pirates’ offense, culminating in a five-yard touchdown pass from Ahlers to senior tight end Anthony Watley, his second in as many games.
That score stretched ECU’s lead to 24-13 with 10:36 and spurred some fans to begin finding the exits. Interceptions by sophomore outside linebacker Gerard Stringer and freshman cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian only hastened that stream of people, but it did not stop ODU’s offense from making a comeback.
On each of the turnovers, ECU’s offense failed to capitalize with points both times, leaving the door open for the Monarchs to sneak back into the game.
Get back in the contest they did by stringing together an eight-play, 58-yard drive with two minutes left in the fourth quarter. A successful two-point conversion made the score 24-21 in favor of ECU. Without the benefit of timeouts, and after an unsuccessful onside kick, the Monarchs could only watch as ECU closed the ball game in victory formation.
“These coaches preach family and unity. No matter what, win or lose, we’re going to stay together,” Ahlers said. “We knew they were going to come out with a surge coming out in the half second and we knew we just had to withstand it and come back with ours.”
All told, ECU’s defense picked off Smartt twice, forced three fumbles (one recovery) and blocked a punt for a touchdown, all effective ways of keeping the team in the game. ODU managed only 293 yards of total offense, 203 of which was through the air.
Despite dominating the time-of-possession battle 36:29 to 23:31, the Monarchs failed to convert on 11 third downs and coughed the ball up at important times to ensure the momentum stayed with ECU.
On the offensive side for the Pirates, it was not the prettiest showing, but it got the job done. Even with his long completion drought, Ahlers still finished 8-for-21 for 202 yards and two touchdowns. Proehl was the leading receiver, hauling in two passes for 100 yards and a touchdown, becoming the first pass-catcher since Trevon Brown and Tyler Snead on Nov. 10, 2018 to eclipse that mark.
In total, the Pirates racked up 311 yards of offense with 109 yards of that coming on the ground from a patch-work of running backs. Still without junior running back Darius Pinnix Jr., ECU relied on freshman Demetrius Mauney and sophomore Trace Christian to carry the load as they both garnered 10 carries apiece. With those opportunities, that duo amassed 73 rushing yards as ODU’s defense once again proved capable of stopping the run.
At 3-2 over a five-game span for the first time since 2015, the Pirates will return home on Oct. 3 to face Temple University (3-1, 0-0 AAC). Kickoff is slated for 8 p.m. as ECU begins a stretch of seven straight conference contests to close the season.
“Three and two going into that game, I’ll take it,” Houston said.