RALEIGH — East Carolina has improved since a 58-3 pounding at N.C. State to end the 2018 season, but a 34-6 loss to the Wolfpack on Saturday indicated the Pirates still have a long way to go.
The journey back to respectability and beyond continues Saturday at 6 p.m. when ECU hosts Gardner-Webb in the first game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with the high rise renovation on the South Side, the TowneBank Tower, in place.
State showed it has reloaded after significant personnel losses on offense. The Pirates are in the midst of a rebuilding project under first-year coach Mike Houston.
“Obviously not pleased with the outcome,” Houston said. ” … When you do a good job recruiting and you build the roster the right way then there are no rebuilding years.”
Houston said the extensive number of redshirts on the Wolfpack roster was a sign of a healthy program.
Matthew McKay, a redshirt sophomore who made his first start at quarterback, completed 25 of 37 passes for 308 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions for the Pack.
State had no turnovers in the season opener and, comparatively, that was a big factor.
“Even though they did have some balls on the ground, we were not able to take advantage of that,” Houston said. “Obviously, that was critical for us.
“Opening drive we came out and had a great drive, moving the ball down the field. We were on the goal line going in, and we’ve got to control the ball all the way through the end zone.
“They don’t give any ribbons for coming close.”
The Pirates lost the early momentum when sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers had the ball knocked loose at the N.C. State 2-yard line and Jarius Morehead recovered in the end zone for the Wolfpack.
The turnover came after ECU had taken the opening kickoff and moved from its 25. Ahlers completed all six of his pass attempts for 47 yards on the initial series.
“That was a big play in the ball game because that completely changed the outlook in the first half,” Houston said. “If you go into halftime, tied or ahead then it’s a completely different mindset coming out of the tunnel in the second half.”
Ahlers said State safety Tanner Ingle got his helmet on the ball and it popped loose.
“Football is a momentum game,” Ahlers said. “I fumbled it there. That’s on me. We’re a better team than that. … Any time you can score right off the bat, that’s big.”
State responded with an 80-yard drive to take a 7-0 lead on a 9-yard run by Zonovan Knight with 8:34 left in the first quarter. McKay had two completions for 37 yards on the drive and ECU also incurred a 15-yard penalty for pass interference on the play before Knight scored on his first collegiate carry.
Jake Verity kicked a 47-yard field goal on the ensuing possession to get the Pirates within 7-3 with 6;04 remaining in the first quarter.
Verity subsequently missed from 52 yards in the second quarter and State moved to the ECU 9 for a 27-yard field goal by Christopher Dunn. That gave the Wolfpack a 10-3 advantage with 10:01 to go in the half.
A 35-yard pass play on a wheel route with McKay finding Ricky Person set up a State TD 51 seconds before the break. Person’s fumble was recovered for a 6-yard gain and McKay kept on a broken play for a 4-yard score.
The Pirates had a 17:48 to 12:12 lead in time of possession for the first 30 minutes despite a 17-3 deficit on the scoreboard. ECU led 115-99 in total yardage for the first quarter but State had 231 total yards to 150 for the Pirates at the half.
When ECU’s defense got State in third down situations, it got off the field the first six times, including a stop when the Pack went for it on a fourth down.
But State moved fast when it got in a rhythm. McKay hit Tabari Hines for a 48-yard touchdown in the third quarter and had a 21-yard keeper for a score early in the fourth quarter.
Verity concluded the scoring as he did last year in Raleigh when State was denied the first shutout in the series which the Pack leads, 18-13. Verity hit from 31 yards with 1:18 to go to finish a drive directed by backup quarterback Reid Herring.
State finished with a 505-269 lead in total yards.
“I feel like we fought the whole game this year and I was proud of my team,” said Pirate defensive end Kendall Futrell, who shared the team lead in tackles with eight. ” … We lost but we’ve got to get better.”
Last season ended in despair for ECU. Now there is determination.
“We’ve got to take today and build on it,” Houston said. “We play them again in three years (in Greenville). We won’t be the same team.”