This time East Carolina opened touchdown, field goal, touchdown and touchdown. By the time the Pirates punted, they were en route to a 1-1 record, routing Gardner-Webb 48-9 Saturday night at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Yes, Gardner-Webb (0-2), a Football Championship Subdivision school, was a lesser opponent than ACC member N.C. State in ECU’s season-opening 34-6 loss. But finishing an encouraging opening drive contrasted drastically from a week ago when sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers fumbled on the game-opening drive at N.C. State’s 2-yard. That left the Pirates wondering what might have been.
This time momentum from an imagined 7-0 lead didn’t vanish. It was posted on the scoreboard when Ahlers capped the game-opening drive with a 7-yard run into the end zone’s left corner on the eighth play of a 69-yard drive.
“Anytime you score the first drive it makes a difference,” Ahlers said. “The O-line did a great job, Darius (Pinnix) did a great job running the ball; all the backs did. Anytime you run the ball like that it opens up the passing game. I thought we came out with a good game plan.”
ECU settled for a 24-yard Jake Verity field goal on its next possession, but the score was soon 17-0 when junior Pinnix bulled his way to a 3-yard touchdown on a 10-play, 60-yard scoring drive. The rout was on.
Gardner Webb was overmatched “playing up” on the road a second straight week to a Group of 5 school, having lost to Conference-USA member Charlotte, 49-28.
The Bulldogs scored in the second quarter on a 10-play, 75-yard drive A.J. Moses finished with a 1-yard run and a safety in the third period when Ahlers was tackled one yard deep.
ECU posted the strong running game that was new coach Mike Houston’s formula for success at James Madison, where in three seasons he posted a 37-6 record with an FCS national title in 2016.
A week ago ECU rushed for only 41 yards and a 1.4 average at N.C. State. This time the rushing numbers were 51 carries for 365 yards and five touchdowns and 7.2 yards-per-carry average.
Pinnix, a 6-foot, 234-pounder, carried 21 times for 134 yards and two scores.
“That’s how it should look; that’s how it looked the last three years at JMU,” Houston said. “You’ve got to able to run the football and control the line of scrimmage in order to win ballgames, win championships and games late in November. In offense we run, we have to balanced.”
True freshman Demetrius Mauney, a Rivals three-star recruit that Houston flipped from Purdue, made the most of mop-up duty in the fourth quarter, carrying 13 times for 107 yards. His 27-yard run set up backup QB Reid Herring’s 10-yard TD run.
Ahlers ran 10 times for 78 and two TDs. He completed 18-of-29 passes for 195 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
True freshman cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian had ECU’s first interception of the season in his second start. McMillian’s 32-yard return to the 1-yard line set up Ahlers’ 2-yard TD run two plays later.
McMillian was a Rivals three-star recruit out of West Forsyth in Clemmons. He committed the summer before the 2018 season to cornerbacks coach Brandon Lynch, the only assistant Houston retained from former coach Scottie Montgomery’s staff.
Junior free safety Devondre Robinson was ejected from the game for targeting early in the second quarter. Gardner-Webb’s Izaiah Gathings caught a 25-yard pass to the 1-yard line on the helmet contact to set up a TD one play later.
▪ Houston, 47, coached with a heavy heart after his father passed away Tuesday morning at the family home in Franklin, N.C., where Houston grew up. Houston also missed practice and time with the team leading up to the Thursday funeral. Offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick and defensive coordinator Bob Trott, who were both with Houston the past three years at James Madison University, directed practices in Houston’s absence.
“Men compartmentalize stuff, and that’s what I tried to do,” Houston said. “I knew our staff could handle everything when I had to leave and our kids handled it with maturity. They were constantly checking on me; it says a lot about them they had those thoughts.”
▪ Gardner-Webb sophomore starting linebacker Cade Hamilton of Forest City was taken from the field strapped to a stretcher. Hamilton was able to wave to the crowd that gave a cheer of support. He was strapped down as precautionary measure, according to an early report.
2-0: Houston is 2-for-2 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. In the 2017 season opener, his James Madison team that was the FCS defending national champion rolled over the Pirates, 34-14. The Dukes finished 2017 as the FCS runner-up.
10: Sophomore linebacker Xavier Smith posted a team-high 10 tackles. He started three games as a true freshman.
7: Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Blake Proehl caught seven passes for 68 yards and a touchdown.
2: Senior nose tackles Alex Turner recorded two of ECU’s three sacks to go with his seven tackles overall.
2: The Pirates picked off two passes after intercepting only five last year. Linebacker Bruce Bivins added to McMillian’s earlier pick.
34,118: The attendance at 50,000-seat Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium didn’t match home openers against FCS schools the past three years: 2016 (44,161), Western Carolina; 2017 (40,169), James Madison; and 2018 (38,640), N.C. A&T.
4: ECU’s first AAC home opponent is four weeks away on Oct. 3 against Temple. The Pirates open AAC play on the road next week at Navy followed by a Sept. 21 non-conference game at Old Dominion.