Beleaguered East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery didn’t hide from the fact that Saturday’s game with North Carolina would have serious implications for not only this year’s Pirates team, but the program as a whole.
The Pirates went 3-9 in Montgomery’s first two seasons and opened his third campaign with a disheartening 28-23 home loss to N.C. A&T from the lesser Football Championship Subdivision.
But along came another team -- another program -- down in the dumps. North Carolina, a 3-9 team itself last season, lost at California in its season-opening game last weekend.
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The Pirates found the Tar Heels to be just the easy foil necessary to get things back on track.
East Carolina ran the ball well. It defended better. The Pirates dominated the second half and easily beat the Tar Heels, 41-19, on a red-hot summer day at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“We played for each other, we played for the coaches and we had a great result,” ECU quarterback Reid Herring said.
Montgomery, a former Duke player and assistant coach, loved nothing more than to get things right against UNC.
“I love beating the Tar Heels,” Montgomery said. “I love it. It’s the best win we’ve had to this point because it’s the last win that we’ve had. But I love beating the Tar Heels.”
The players wanted to support their coach, who entered the game with a 6-19 record at ECU.
“We know that a lot of people were giving coach Mo a hard time,” linebacker Aaron Ramseur said. “We could see it. The players are behind him 100 percent because we know he is behind us 100 percent. We just can’t let him go like that. We know he’s a good coach and it’s on us to show it.”
Here’s what the Pirates did well:
Former Duke assistant, Montgomery worked under Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe before coming to Greenville. The Blue Devils routinely used two quarterbacks from 2012-2015 when they went to bowl games in four consecutive seasons. So Montgomery decided to implement a similar system to get Herring, his sophomore starter, and freshman reserve Holton Ahlers in the game plan.
Herring is the more traditional player of the two. He played the majority of the snaps, completing 19 of 32 passes for 290 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Ahlers attempted just one pass. But he ran the ball eight times, gaining 36 yards while scoring two touchdowns.
The approach helped East Carolina gain 510 total yards against their ACC opponents from Chapel Hill.
“I woke up Tuesday morning fired up about the endless possibilities for our run game,” Montgomery said. “Holton really gave us a boost. His package is large, much larger than people thing. He can throw it really well. We’ll continue to work ways to get everybody involved.”
The Pirates rushed for four touchdowns and gained 220 yards on the ground. Anthony Scott led the way with 17 carries for 73 yards while Hussein Howe had 50 yards on 15 carries. Darius Pinnix ran five times for 65 yards.
ECU converted 11 of 19 third downs and dominated the time of possession, holding the ball for 35:04 to UNC’s 24:56.
Herring was impressed with what Ahlers brought to the offense.
“He definitely brought a different dynamic,” Herring said. “We had a certain package for him. He executed well. He scored two times. it was exciting to see him get in there and score a couple of times. I know he loved it. It was a great feeling winning with our guys.”
UNC moved the ball well in the first half, scoring on five of six possessions. But only one of those trips into ECU territory resulted in a touchdown and the Pirates led 21-19 at halftime.
After UNC running back Antonio Williams was ejected in the second quarter for an illegal hit while blocking ECU defensive back Colby Gore, the Tar Heels offense did even less.
The Pirates shut out the Tar Heels in the second half, limiting them to just 78 total yards over the final two quarters.
“We are just playing at a really, really high level right now,” Montgomery said. “Early in the first half, my adjustments to the defense were that we needed to contain them a little better on third down. We ended up doing a great job of that.”
The Tar Heels converted just 5 of 16 third downs and were 1 of 3 on fourth downs.
The Pirates recorded seven tackles for losses, led by Ramseur with two.
“We made sure in practice that we did everything we possibly could do to get ready for this game and not think about the past,” Ramseur said. “We came out with a victory.”