TAMPA (Via ESPN+) — East Carolina eliminated problems contributing to an 0-2 start and pounded South Florida, 44-24, on Saturday night before the big Pirate ship at Raymond James Stadium, also home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
ECU junior quarterback Holton Ahlers made a significant turnaround after throwing three interceptions without a touchdown in last week’s 49-29 loss at Georgia State. Ahlers threw for three scores without a pick as the Pirates improved to 1-2 overall and 1-1 in the American Athletic Conference.
Ahlers completed 17 of 26 passes for 222 yards, including a 2-yard toss to Darius Pinnix Jr. that put ECU ahead to stay at 10-7 with 3:50 left in the first quarter. He found his former D.H. Conley teammate, C.J. Johnson, for scores covering 75 and 14 yards.
“We were ourselves and we played good,” Ahlers said. “I’ve got to give praise to the O-line. They killed it tonight.”
After struggling to protect Ahlers last week and enable the running game, the blocking front was much more effective against the Bulls (1-3, 0-2 AAC).
Coach Mike Houston looked happy and relieved as he scanned the stats.
“210 (yards) rushing and 222 passing,” he said. “I’ll take that.”
It wasn’t just a solid 60 minutes on Saturday night that helped right the ship, it was a great week of preparation.
“We had our best week of practice,” Houston said. “Defense had its best Tuesday practice. Offense had its best practice on Wednesday. The last 48 hours, walk-throughs were great Friday. They were great today. Kids were locked-in during meetings. The attention to detail, the urgency and also, we were relaxed.
“I felt really good. I told Jon Gilbert (athletic director), he called me this morning. … I said, ‘You know what? We’ve had our best week of practice. The kids are relaxed. They’re confident. I expect us to play well.’
“I don’t know that I expected us to come down here and get a 20-point victory.”
The outcome took the Bulls by surprise as well as they had scheduled the matchup as their homecoming game. The series made that decision look logical as USF had beaten ECU in nine of 10 previous meetings, including a 45-20 conquest last year in Greenville. The Pirates’ only previous win against the Bulls came by a 28-17 margin in Tampa in 2014.
The Tampa Bay Lightning has celebrated a Stanley Cup triumph in recent weeks and the Tampa Bay Rays reached the American League championship series Friday night. None of that success has trickled down to the Bulls, who have fallen from AAC power to a rebuilding project under first-year coach Jeff Scott, former offensive coordinator at Clemson.
Pirate Nation may have cringed a bit when Jake Verity hit a 25-yard field goal on the game’s first possession to give ECU a 3-0 advantage. The Pirates also scored first in losses to Central Florida and Georgia State. In the first two games, opponents responded to initial ECU touchdowns with a combined total of 62 unanswered points.
USF started down a similar path with an 8-yard run by Johnny Ford for a 7-3 lead.
This time it was the Pirates with a powerful early flurry. The lengthy scoring reception by Johnson and a 42-yard TD run by true freshman Rahjai Harris helped put USF in the rear-view mirror. The Bulls mishandled a punt snap and Harris went into the end zone from 10 yards out on the next play for a 31-14 lead with 2:17 left in the first half.
The first score by Harris came after defensive lineman Elijah Morris went up to grab a fumble caused by Malik Fleming that had popped up in the air.
“We did win the turnover battle,” Houston said. “We did create a couple of short fields for our offense with a couple of those turnovers. We were going after the punt when they were backed up. To me, that’s another turnover also.”
ECU ran a play flow to the right with Ahlers rolling out to his left and delivering a pass to Johnson on the left side for a score with 10 seconds left in the third quarter for a 38-17 lead.
Verity, a senior, hit field goals from 42 and 37 yards in the fourth quarter as he became the program’s all-time leading scorer with 309 points. He passed kicker Warren Harvey, who had 300 points from 2012 to 2014.
ECU’s current kicker talked about the night from a team perspective.
“It’s a start to what our mission is on the season,” Verity said. “We prepared well in practice. This is what we planned to do and we came out here and executed and did it.”
Harris finished with 19 carries for 115 yards. Johnson had three catches for 99 yards. Blake Proehl had four receptions for 36 yards. Tyler Snead’s three grabs accounted for 42 yards.
ECU opponents totaled 100 points in the first two games. The Pirates had 13 tackles for loss in bucking that trend. Inside linebacker Xavier Smith made 11 solo stops. Corner Nolan Johnson, safety Shawn Dourseau and inside backer Aaron Ramseur also were among ECU’s tackling leaders.
Houston said the Pirates would have a victory dinner Sunday night with steak, shrimp and peanut butter pie if he had to pay for the meal himself.
The Pirates were turning their attention to Navy (Saturday, Oct. 17, noon, Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, ESPN+) after a locker room celebration Saturday night. Like USF, the Midshipmen have gotten the best of ECU over the years, leading the series, 6-1, after a 42-10 victory last season in Annapolis in Houston’s first AAC contest.