Sports

In ECU loss to Central Florida, new quarterback Holton Ahlers provides hope

East Carolina quarterback quarterback Holton Ahlers (12) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against North Carolina on Saturday, September 8, 2018 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C.
East Carolina quarterback quarterback Holton Ahlers (12) celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against North Carolina on Saturday, September 8, 2018 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Holton Ahlers provided East Carolina fans hope as the hometown kid that turned down ACC, SEC and Big Ten schools. The D.H. Conley High gradute was a recruiting coup for coach Scottie Montgomery.

Now, Montgomery is holding on to that hope with his midseason commitment to Ahlers. The 6-foot-3, 236-pound true freshman quarterback threw for 406 yards and ran for 69 in his first career start, a 37-10 loss to Central Florida Saturday night at Dowdy-Ficklen.

Here are five observations from ECU falling to 2-5 overall and 0-4 in the American Athletic Conference East as the Pirates enter a bye week. They return Nov. 3 to face Memphis (4-4, 1-3 AAC West) at Dowdy-Ficklen.

Ahlers establishes himself

Montgomery bubbled over Ahlers in fall camp, although he ultimately decided redshirt sophomore Reid Herring was ahead of him and started the first six games. But now Ahlers is being prepared for a heavier load.

“The kid is going to get better,” Montgomery said. “We’ve got an open date here. Listen, he’s going to get really good over the next couple of weeks. There are a few things he missed tonight. We can correct it. The thing about him is he listens. He’s a competitor.”

Added Josh Heupel, an Oklahoma quarterback before entering coaching: “He’s really a good player. He was elusive and was able to extend plays outside of the pocket.”

Herring in concussion protocol

Herring, a Millbrook High alum, wasn’t cleared for UCF after he suffered a concussion in a midweek automobile accident. But he was on the field for the warm-ups, smiling and encouraging Ahlers, while dressed in purple sweats.

“We’re fully confident he’ll come out of concussion protocol soon,” said Montgomery on Monday. “He’s doing well. We’ll continue to work to get him back. It’s an unfortunate situation that it played out in public, but that’s the world we live in.”

Two plays

Out of 622 ECU offensive snaps this season, two by quarterbacks making their first career start have greatly altered the season’s perception -- if not record.

The first was in the season opener, a 28-23 loss to North Carolina A&T.

ECU led 3-0 when Herring drove the Pirates 68 yards to a first-and-goal at the A&T 2-yard line. But the Aggies’ Franklin McCain returned a forced pass 108 yards for a touchdown.

Instead of ECU leading 10-0, the Pirates trailed 7-3. A&T held on for a five-point victory.

The second was against UCF when Ahlers channeled Tim Tebow. He had driven the Pirates 98 yards from ECU’s 1 to UCF’s 1. On third-and-goal, he tried a jump pass but no one was open. He tried to re-grip the wet ball that slipped away. Nate Evans scooped it and ran 94 yards to score.

Instead of ECU closing the deficit to an upset-threatening 23-17 score with 10 minutes to play, UCF surged ahead 30-10.

If the Pirates had maintained their UCF scare into the final moments and if they had beaten A&T to account for a 3-4 record, those two outcomes combined with a win over Power 5 North Carolina (41-19) and a near-upset of No. 21 South Florida (20-13) would have greatly changed perception with five games to play.

Accepting blame

Ahlers’ 475 all-purpose yards was one part of his task. The other, to establish leadership, was accepting blame for the jump-pass fumble TD return and two other turnovers that put the defense in bad field possession.

“I’ve got to learn from that,” he said. “It won’t happen again. Even though I’m a freshman, I can’t make mistakes. My job is to lead the team. I feel like tonight, without those turnovers, we’re in this game.”

Of the pressure he faces, he added, “Being a quarterback you’ve got to be a leader no matter if you’re a true freshman or not. The team has to be able to look to the quarterback. I enjoy that. I love the guys around me. I trust them and they trust me.”

The bye week

Montgomery plans a full week of practice focused on Ahlers and other younger players.

“We’ve got to get some guys healthy,” he said. “We’ve had some problems in the offensive line and hopefully with a couple weeks we’ll get some guys back. We’ll have a full week of heavy pads with younger guys. We’re looking forward to seeing some guys that haven’t played in four games for a redshirt.”

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