ATLANTA (Via ESPNU) — East Carolina’s special teams produced a pair of touchdowns in a comeback bid on Saturday before Georgia State closed out a 49-29 nonconference win.
For the second straight week, the Pirates (0-2) got the opening score, this time on a 28-yard pick six by Warren Saba on the Panthers’ first snap.
But, as in a 51-28 season-opening loss to Central Florida, momentum made a U-turn. After driving 75 yards on the first series to lead the Knights, 7-0, last week, UCF took control with 34 unanswered points.
This week, the Panthers (1-1) got untracked for a 28-7 lead early in the second quarter.
“It’s such a big hole there in the first half,” said ECU coach Mike Houston. “It just makes it really, really tough. We made a couple of special teams plays there in the second half and got us back in the ball game.”
Holder Tyler Snead ran 31 yards on a fake field goal to bring the Pirates within 42-23 with 10:30 left to play.
ECU receiver Blake Proehl blocked a punt on Georgia State’s ensuing possession and took it 29 yards to the end zone to cut the Panthers’ lead to 42-29 with 8:07 to go. Jake Verity, who hit field goals of 34, 40 and 48 yards in his home state, pulled the conversion wide left.
The Pirates got the ball back at their 26 after a missed field goal by the hosts but a 4th-and-9 pass from the ECU 38 was incomplete
The Panthers used the short field to get their last score on a 5-yard carry by Destin Coates with 23 seconds remaining.
True freshman Mason Garcia saw his first action at quarterback in the closing stages, rushing for 10 yards and throwing incomplete twice.
Pirates starter Holton Ahlers was unable to get the offense into the end zone.
“It was disappointing,” Ahlers said. “It starts with me. I came here to win games. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
Ahlers was often under pressure, completing 29 of 50 passes for 242 yards with three interceptions — with one of the picks going to the wrong house.
The running game, which looked so promising with 244 yards against UCF, managed just 50 yards on 26 rushes, 1.9 yards per carry. Snead’s burst on the fake field goal provided 62 percent of the rushing yardage.
Snead had 11 catches for 111 yards. Proehl had 11 receptions for 83 yards.
Houston was asked about the breakdowns in pass protection and the struggles to run the ball.
“You’re not going to be very good if you can’t do those two things,” said the second-year Pirates coach.
Georgia State outgained ECU, 485-292. The Panthers got 247 yards on the ground as Coates carried 23 times for 113 yards with two scores. Cornelious Brown IV completed 18 of 28 for GSU for 238 yards with three TDs and two picks. Ja’Quan McMillian had an interception in the third quarter for the Pirates.
The ECU defense limited GSU to 182 yards in the second half.
“We kept our head up into the fourth quarter and got into a close game,” Saba said. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t pull it out.”
Sophomore defensive back Jireh Wilson was in on a team-high 13 tackles, including 10 solos. Wilson came on a blitz that led to the interception return by Saba.
ECU defensive lineman Chris Willis, a graduate transfer from Appalachian State, was ejected in the second quarter for targeting.
“I was very disappointed in the loss,” Houston said. “They were exactly the team that I thought they were. Hats off to them. They’ve done a great job building that program. They looked like a very experienced group, very good up front on both sides of the football. Obviously, we did not handle that atmosphere and them very well in the first half and got ourselves in a pretty big hole.
“I appreciate the way the kids fought back. We got ourselves back in the game somewhat and gave ourselves a chance maybe to have a shot there at the end. A couple of mistakes there in the second half, fourth quarter, that just took our chances away.
“Obviously, we’ve got to do a better job of preparing the group for the start of the football game. After the pick six, which is as good a start as you can ask for, we did not handle everything very well.”
The Pirates are scheduled to return to action with an American Athletic Conference contest at South Florida on Saturday at 7 p.m. (ESPN+).
“We’ve just got to be better,” Houston said. “We’ve got to be better coaches. We’ve got to be better players. We’ve got to execute better. We’ve got to push ourselves to continue to improve. … Certainly, we all have higher expectations for how we perform on the field.”
Attendance was 3,823 at Center Parc Stadium. There were 350 on hand for ECU’s season opener.
“At least, we did have a few fans here,” Houston said. “We had several ECU fans on our side. Just really appreciate them being there to support the kids. Be glad when we have more of them to support them.
“Hopefully, the next time we’re at home (vs. Navy, Oct. 17), we’ll be able to have a pretty good contingency.”