holton ahlers

Senior quarterback Holton Ahlers prepares for the snap before calling for the play to begin.

East Carolina University (6-3, 3-2 American Athletic Conference) football defeated Brigham Young University (BYU) (4-5, 0-0 Independent) on Oct. 28 in a 27-24 victory that came down to the wire in Provo, Utah.

BYU, as many of the Pirates’ opponents before, won the coin toss and elected to defer the first possession of the game to the visiting team. Things started off slow for ECU, who were forced to punt on a three and out after a nine yard loss on second down set the team behind the chains.

The Cougars did not start with the same lack of speed. The 10 play drive resulted in a field goal downfield as the Pirates defense bent, but did not break. The field goal was not the first time that the defense forced BYU to make a play on fourth down. On 4th & 3 from ECU’s 39 yard line, BYU’s junior quarterback Jaren Hall threw an incompletion that would have ended the drive were it not for a roughing the passer penalty against the Pirates.

The momentum was enough to push the Cougars downfield for the score and give BYU the first score of the game. The 3-0 lead would not last, however, as the Pirates responded with a touchdown of their own.

The drive started for the Pirates at their own 25 yard line with 8:23 to go in the first quarter. The first big play of the game for ECU was a connection from senior quarterback Holton Ahlers to graduate student wide receiver Isaiah Winstead for 18 yards. The chunk play woke up the Pirate offense, who then grabbed two more first downs on runs by sophomore wide receiver Keaton Mitchell.

He followed up his 11 and 10 yard runs with a run through the right side of the field 31 yards that was taken to the endzone for a touchdown. Mitchell created the run with crafty weaving between defenders before using his speed to break away in space. After freshman placekicker Andrew Conrad converted the extra point, the Pirates took the lead at 7-3.

Following the offensive performance, the defense held up their end of the deal and created a three and out against a BYU offense that threw two incompletions and was stuffed on a short run to lead to the fourth down punt. ECU returned the three and out with one of their own to lead to the Cougars’ next scoring drive.

After the Pirates punted, the Cougars put together a drive that would set the standard for what was to come, using all three downs to keep the ball pushing every set of downs. On the drive’s second third down, BYU’s Hall fumbled the ball on a scramble that was recovered by the Cougars.

The drive changed shape for BYU when senior running back Lopini Katoa broke free for two field flipping 24 yard gains early in the second quarter. The Pirates defense had no answer for the second 24 yard rush, as it was brought all the way into the endzone for the score to give BYU the 10-7 score.

ECU met the touchdown with a field goal on their next possession. Starting at ECU’s 25 yard line, the Pirates got an early spark on offense from junior wide receiver Jsi Hatfield who caught a 51 yard bomb from Ahlers to put ECU on BYU’s 23 yard line.

From there, Mitchell was tasked to carry the offense behind his legs with four consecutive runs that led to 4th & 6 from BYU’s six yard line. Conrad was brought out for the field goal and converted, bringing the score to 10-10.

The Cougars continued to heat up, creating an air raid offense on the next drive that led to a touchdown from BYU’s Hall to junior wide receiver Puka Nacua. The 30 yard reception was wide open, as Nacua walked into the endzone to bring BYU’s lead to 17-10.

On the kickoff back to the Pirates, ECU’s Hatfield fumbled the ball as he was tackled but the ball was recovered by ECU. With 5:53 left in the third quarter, ECU put together a scoring drive of their own. Once again it was Mitchell who created the big plays that brought the Pirates down to the Cougars’ side of the field. Ahlers completed a set of passes before pushing his way into the endzone from the one yard line for a rushing touchdown on 3rd & 1.

The touchdown run was capitalized with a made extra point attempt that tied the game at 17-17 with 2:36 remaining in the second quarter. With pressure mounting, BYU’s offense came to the turf, but was forced off field once again on a three and out to give the Pirates the opportunity to play from ahead rather than playing from behind as the unit had been doing.

With only 59 seconds left, the Pirates were unable to put together a scoring drive and instead settled for running the clock down to zero.

BYU came out of halftime with the necessary adjustments to lead to a scoring drive. The methodical, ball control drive crept the ball downfield on short to medium gains and rushes. The touchdown pass for BYU’s Hall pushed the Cougars’ lead to 24-17 and ensured that the Pirates would continue to play from behind. ECU’s defense did their job, however, forcing this Cougars score to be the final of the game.

ECU’s responding drive was one big play after another. The drive began with two runs for Mitchell for 19 yards before Ahlers connected with junior quarterback C.J. Johnson on a 26 yard gain. Mitchell once again ran for a 21 yard gain before freshman running back Marlon Gunn Jr. got the opportunity to show out, creating a five yard run.

Ahlers topped off the drive with a four yard touchdown run, diving into the endzone for the score. Following the extra point, ECU tied the game once again at 24-24. Following kickoff, BYU used its next possession to run out the clock on the third quarter, though the drive started with 7:03 to go.

The drive was short gain after short gain, squeezing the Pirates’ defense downfield to spite the unit that would not let up a big gain. Facing a 4th & 2 at ECU’s 12 yard line, the Cougars decided to go for it and failed to convert as BYU’s Hall threw an incompletion that changed possession to bring the Pirates back to offense.

ECU took the ball the other way to bring the team within striking distance on a 10 play drive. From BYU’s 25 yard line, ECU brought out Conrad to attempt a 42 yard field goal. The kick was no good, keeping the score tied at 24-24 with 9:59 to go in the game.

The two teams shared punts back and forth until BYU had to kick off to the Pirates with 2:26 remaining. ECU took the final drive all the way downfield on medium gains to BYU’s 39 yard line before the Pirates faced a fourth down. From 4th & 8, ECU’s head coach Mike Houston decided to go for it on a play that saw Ahlers throw to Winstead in double coverage.

BYU’s defensive back wrapped Winstead up for a flag on the play. The pass interference extended ECU’s drive and allowed the Pirates to set up at BYU’s 16 yard line with time expiring. The Cougars called both of their remaining timeouts to ice Conrad, but it was Conrad who iced the Cougars as he sank the 33 yard field goal on a low, straight kick to push ECU to 27-24 as time expired.

The victory in Utah secured ECU a bowl game in the postseason, though the team has their sights aimed higher with the No. 20 University of Cincinnati (6-2, 3-1 AAC) next on the schedule following a bye week. Beating Cincinnati is the next step to securing a spot in the AAC conference championship game.

The winner of the brawl between the Bearcats and Pirates is almost guaranteed to face Tulane University (7-1, 4-0 AAC) for the Dec. 3 championship game.

ECU will travel to Cincinnati, Ohio, to face the Bearcats on Nov. 11 and the game will be streamed on ESPN2. The 8 p.m. kickoff will serve as what could be the Pirates biggest game of the season. After Cincinnati, the Pirates will have two regular season games remaining. With the win over BYU, ECU is 2-0 against teams joining the Big 12 Conference next season. Cincinnati is set to join the Big 12 on July 1, 2023.

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