GREENVILLE — East Carolina scored first and last on Saturday at virtually-empty Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, but in between No. 13 Central Florida was sufficiently effective for a 51-28 American Athletic Conference victory.
The Pirates (0-1) took it to the Knights (2-0) early as Holton Ahlers won the pregame toss, said ECU wanted the ball and then drove his hometown team 75 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
On the first play from scrimmage, Ahlers hit his former D.H. Conley teammate C.J. Johnson for 15 yards. On 3rd-and-5, Ahlers found Blake Proehl for 12 yards and a first down. On 3rd-and-20 after a personal foul penalty on the Pirates, Ahlers threw to Audie Omotosho for 22 yards.
The junior quarterback ran for 19 yards before throwing to Darius Pinnix, who bowled over a UCF defender, on his way to a 19-yard touchdown
Jake Verity’s extra point gave ECU a 7-0 lead with 11:20 left in the first quarter.
The crispness of the offense on the first series was reminiscent of an early ECU drive at N.C. State in the first game of the Mike Houston coaching era in 2019. but that possession ended with a lost fumble in the red zone and the Wolfpack went on to a 34-6 victory.
Fumbles would plague the Pirates again in the 2020 opener, but not before the Knights had to deal with their own offensive miscues. UCF incurred four straight false start penalties before getting a play off without a flag. The visitors still managed to tie the score at 7 on their first series as Greg McCrae ran into the end zone from a yard out from Wildcat formation with 8:22 left in the first quarter.
The Pirates lost the ball on fumbles on their next three possessions. A revamped defense, directed by new coordinator Blake Harrell, kept ECU within striking distance, allowing just a pair of field goals on the three turnovers, all of which were recovered in Pirate territory.
UCF outscored the Pirates 17-0 in the second quarter to lead 27-7 at the half. The Knights led 11-3 in first downs and 223-60 in total yards during the period.
UCF drove 75 yards on the first series of the second half to go up 34-7 on an 11-yard pass from Dylan Gabriel to Jacob Harris.
Gabriel completed 32 of 47 passes for 408 yards with four TDs and no interceptions. The Knights finished with 632 total yards to 459 for the Pirates.
Johnson snared a 37-yard scoring pass from Ahlers with 6:26 left in the third quarter. ECU got fourth quarter TDs from Pinnix on a 3-yard run and from Tyler Snead on a 7-yard reception. Ahlers completed 14 of 29 passes for 215 yards with three scores and one pick.
Rushing yardage was 244-224 in favor of the Pirates. Freshman Keaton Mitchell led ECU’s ground game with eight carries for 66 yards. Omotosho paced the ECU receivers with three grabs for 56 yards.
Inside linebacker Xavier Smith and safety Shawn Dourseau were in on a team-high eight tackles each for the Pirates. Freshman defensive end Immanuel Hickman and defensive back Robert Kennedy were in on seven stops apiece. Dourseau and Kennedy transferred to ECU in the offseason.
The contest resembled last year’s matchup with UCF in that the Pirates played a stronger second half. The Knights won 41-28 in Orlando last season after leading 35-6 at the break.
“We had a great opportunity coming into this game,” Houston said after ECU lost for the fifth straight time in the series. “I really like our roster. I like our team. Everybody knows what happened. Everybody watched the game.
“I thought we played with tremendous energy, intensity and physicality, defensively, out of the gate. Loved our first drive offensively, took it down, got seven points, got going. Really had an opportunity to get some control of the ball game and had three turnovers. … Those mistakes, you just can’t keep making them.”
UCF was penalized 19 times for 139 yards while the hosts drew 11 flags totaling 105 yards, but the Knights did not have a turnover and the Pirates had four.
UCF was coming off a 49-21 win at Georgia Tech on Sept. 19 and having a game under their belts may have been an advantage for the Knights in executing their up-tempo offense when they could get everyone in accord on the snap count. ECU had anticipated opening the season on Aug. 29 but the schedule was changed multiple times due to coronavirus testing.
The Pirates are scheduled to play at Georgia State on Saturday but the status of that game would appear to be in doubt after the Panthers’ tilt with Charlotte on Saturday was postponed due to results from COVID-19 testing.
The pandemic resulted in a crowd announced at 350 on Saturday, the lowest number for that figure since the Pirates began recording attendance in 1962. Only two immediate family members of each ECU player were admitted.
The game was shown on ABC until the fourth quarter when viewing was shifted to an ESPN platform. Injury stoppages, 10 touchdowns and commercial breaks, some of which lasted over three minutes, resulted in the game’s duration of three hours, 58 minutes.