On East Carolina’s first drive of the game, it looked like the Pirates would be unstoppable against N.C. State.
ECU got the ball first and went to work, led by sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers. The Greenville native connected on all six of his pass attempts on the drive and rushed for 10 yards. On his third rushing attempt, Ahlers used all of his 235-pound frame to bully his way towards the goal line, but as he stretched out his arm, the football was knocked loose and the Wolfpack bounced on it in the end zone.
The Pirates never recovered as N.C. State went on to win 34-6 in the season opener for both teams. Finding the end zone has been a problem for ECU (0-1) in their last two trips to Carter-Finley Stadium. Last year in the regular-season finale, the Pirates lost to the Wolfpack 58-3. On Saturday, in the 31st meeting between the teams located 83 miles apart, ECU had its chance to make a statement early, and when it didn’t happen, it changed the tone of the rest of the game.
“Opening drive we came out, had a great drive, moved the ball down the field,” Pirates’ coach Mike Houston told the media after the game. “But we have to control the ball all the way through the end zone. They don’t give you any ribbons for coming close.”
Ahlers said an N.C. State player got a helmet on the ball as he reached for the goal line, and that mistake was on him.
“That completely changed the outcome of the first half,” Houston said. “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.”
A team loss for ECU
The Pirates picked up 75 yards on the first drive, but only picked up 34, 1, 38, 4 and 0 on their next five.
They had more yards on the first drive than the entire third (65) and fourth (54) quarters.
Houston said it was a team loss and ECU, without a doubt, had its share of mistakes that could have perhaps changed things if the ball bounced their way a couple of times.
N.C. State’s second touchdown came on a drive when the Pirates couldn’t seem to catch any breaks. After Wolfpack redshirt sophomore quarterback Matt McKay hit sophomore running back Ricky Person for a 45-yard gain to the ECU 10, McKay fumbled on his next carry. The ball stayed on the ground for what seemed like forever, within reach of at least two Pirates who couldn’t scoop it up. McKay scored on the following play, a run that was a disaster from the start, when McKay turned to hand the ball to a back who wasn’t there. He still found the end zone to put the Wolfpack ahead 17-3 with 2:14 remaining in the first half.
“We didn’t get it,” Houston said about the fumble that could have been recovered by the Pirates. “I talked to the team after the game, we keep harping on pursuit and being around the ball. If you’re around the ball good things happen, and there were three balls on the ground today that we did not get. We have to translate you should have been there to you’re there.”
Holton Ahlers interception(s)
ECU turned the ball over twice, and Ahlers threw two interceptions on the same drive. The first one, to Brock Miller, didn’t count after N.C. State was flagged for a face mask. Three plays later, Ahlers was picked off by N.C. State junior cornerback Chris Ingram. That turnover led to the McKay touchdown, a sequence of events that turned out to be a seven-point swing right before the break.
Ahlers finished the day 22-of-39 for 168 yards, but Houston admitted it wasn’t the kind of performance he expected from his quarterback.
“I think he’s better than what he played,” Houston said. “And he’ll say the same thing. I love him, I’m glad he’s our quarterback. I didn’t think he had the kind of performance that we expect from him, or that he expected from himself.”
After completing his first seven passes, Ahlers only connected on three of his next eight attempts, with that first-drive fumble proving to be an early turning point.
“Anytime you can score right off the bat that’s big,” Ahlers said. “We just stopped ourselves. This is not a losing football team. We just have to bounce back next week. If we take away the missed assignments and the mistakes we’re in this ball game, it’s a close game. Unfortunately, we did it to ourselves, we have to learn from it.”