East Carolina coach Mike Houston said the game would be different, and N.C. State coach Dave Doeren agreed.
They were both right. Sort of.
It wasn’t by 55 points, but N.C. State did beat ECU handily again. This time it was 34-6 to open the season on Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium.
The Pirates closed out their 2018 season with a 58-3 loss on the same field on Dec. 1. Houston was hired from James Madison two days later. The new coach promised the Pirates would show more fight in this matchup. They did but that was a relative concept, and the game never got out of hand like last year’s did.
“I was pleased with the fact that our guys fought all the way through because that’s not an easy situation to be in there in the second half,” Houston said. “That’s my biggest fear right now is some of the things we saw last year. That stuff has to be out of the program.”
For the most part it was, but the gap between the Pirates and Wolfpack is still fairly large. Doeren’s program looked like it was in Year 7 while Houston’s looked like it was at the start of a makeover process after three consecutive 3-9 seasons.
“There were a lot of good things that happened today,” Doeren said.
Topping the list, quarterback Matt McKay threw for 308 yards and a touchdown and ran for a pair of touchdowns in his first start. He missed a few deep throws in the first half but settled down in the second half. He completed 25-of-37 passes for 308 yards with a 48-yard touchdown to receiver Tabari Hines.
“He was very confident,” Doeren said of his new quarterback. “He put his time in, studied and prepared. I tell the players that if you are prepared, you won’t be nervous. He prepared the right way for this football game.”
N.C. State, coming off of a 9-4 season, got a big play on the opening drive from sophomore safety Tanner Ingle. ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers led the Pirates down the field and completed his first six passes, but he fumbled into the end zone.
Ingle hit Ahlers near the 4-yard line and safety Jarius Morehead recovered the fumble. Instead of a 7-0 lead, ECU turned the ball over and N.C. State proceeded to score on its opening drive.
McKay hit receiver Thayer Thomas for a pair of long pickups to set up a 9-yard TD run by freshman running back Bam Knight.
ECU responded with a field goal, a 47-yarder by Jake Verity, on the next drive to make it 7-3.
That was as close as it would be the rest of the way. Up 10-3, McKay led the Wolfpack offense into the red zone.
McKay fumbled but senior left tackle Emanuel McGirt recovered it at the 4-yard line. On the next play, there was a mixup between McKay and the running back, but McKay improvised and ran in for a 4-yard touchdown and a 17-3 lead.
The Pirates couldn’t get their offense going. Ahlers completed 22-of-39 passes for 168 yards. The athletic sophomore never got his running game going either with only 11 yards.
N.C. State’s defense, which came out in a new 3-3-5 stack alignment, held the Pirates to 41 rushing yards.
Hines, a graduate transfer from Wake Forest, caught a 48-yard touchdown pass in the second half, and McKay added a 21-yard TD run to put the game out of reach, 31-3, at 12:21 in the fourth quarter.
Hines used to terrorize N.C. State while at Wake Forest. After an injury-shortened year at Oregon, he decided to come back to the ACC. N.C. State is glad he did.
The 5-10, 185-pound receiver caught four passes for 74 yards and ran for 34 yards.
N.C. State’s defense ended the 2018 season with a clunker in a bowl loss to Texas A&M. It came out with a new alignment and a new look, reliant on its linebackers.
The Pirates found some room underneath in the short passing routes but couldn’t break any big plays.
McKay tried to run a hurry-up QB sneak on a long fourth-and-2 in the second quarter that was predictably snuffed out by the ECU defense.
N.C. State kicker Chris Dunn made both of his field goals (27 and 34 yards). He has made 17 attempts in a row.
1.4 Yards per rush for ECU’s offense.
83 ECU has been outscored by 83 points in its past two games at N.C. State.
4-4 N.C. State scored four times in four red-zone scoring chances.