GREENVILLE — East Carolina managed to keep Navy’s triple option offense from staging a track meet at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday but the Pirates were defenseless against medical protocols in a 27-23 American Athletic Conference loss to the Midshipmen.
ECU starting quarterback Holton Ahlers had a positive test for COVID-19 during game week and was out. Contact tracing also resulted in running backs Darius Pinnix Jr. and Demetrius Mauney missing the game as well as Damir Faison, a starting defensive end, and second-team safety Davondre “Tank” Robinson.
The unfortunate and disturbing aspect of Ahler’s situation was that he subsequently was negative in a test he sought on his own, according to a post on Twitter by his older brother, Griffin Ahlers.
Alabama coach Nick Saban experienced a similar positive coronavirus test on Wednesday, but subsequent negative tests cleared him to return to the sideline at the last minute for the Crimson Tide’s Southeastern Conference victory over Georgia on Saturday.
Coach Mike Houston said 10 players were pulled out of practice on Tuesday but credited the remainder of the team for their focused preparation in the aftermath..
“It is what it is,” Houston said of the personnel absences. “It’s what we have to deal with in 2020. It’s certainly something that’s out of my control. It’s out of the kids’ control. You hate that it happens. The kids have done a great job with protocols. It’s something we’ve got to deal with. We’ll deal with it again probably.”
The Pirates are scheduled for a bye week before traveling to Tulsa for an AAC game on Friday, Oct. 30, at 9 p.m.
ECU (1-3, 1-2 AAC) held Navy (3-2, 3-0) to its lowest point total ever in the 8-game series, but true freshman back-up quarterback Mason Garcia was not in sync with receivers and the passing game produced a paltry 104 yards on 20 throws.
True freshman running back Rahjai Harris did his best to offset the deflated air game with 172 yards on 22 carries including an 80-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter that got the Pirates within 27-20.
Jake Verity’s third field goal reduced the lead to 27-23 with 6:33 to go.
Navy converted a 4th-and-2 from its 44 in its clock-consuming last possession. ECU did not get the ball again until a punt put the Pirates at their own 15-yard line with 22 seconds left.
The Midshipmen also had to turn to their No. 2 quarterback after starter Dalen Morris was injured in the third quarter. Junior Tyger Goslin came in and Navy broke a tie at 13 two plays later as fullback Nelson Smith ran 24 yards for a 20-13 lead with 8:51 left in the third quarter.
Smith rushed 17 times for 157 yards and two touchdowns as the Midshipmen extended their lead in the series to 7-1.
A 3-yard scoring run by Jamale Carothers on the last snap of the third quarter pushed Navy’s lead to 27-13.
Garcia showed no reluctance to run as his 3-yard keeper gave the Pirates a 13-7 lead with 7:03 left in the half. Field goals by Verity from 40 and 25 yards had accounted for ECU’s scoring to that point. Verity had a 31-yard attempt blocked with Navy leading 7-6 with 12:06 to go in the half.
Garcia had 15 carries for 63 yards as the Pirates totaled 268 yards rushing, the bulk of that provided by Harris.
“I had the team on my back,” Harris said. “The offensive line played great. The whole team played great. We just couldn’t get a win today.”
The Pirates are determined to keep moving forward.
“I can’t wait to play Tulsa,” said Houston, who is in his second season at the helm of the Pirate ship. “We get a chance to catch our breath this week. We’ll work on some things we need to work on and get ready to go to Tulsa next week and have another shot.”
The matchup with Tulsa will be another measuring stick. The Golden Hurricane won last year’s game in Greenville, 49-24. The season-ending setback left the Pirates 4-8 overall and 1-7 in the AAC.
The Midshipmen dealt ECU a 42-10 loss in Annapolis last year. Obviously, the 2020 meeting was more competitive.
“We just do our job and keep fighting,” said inside linebacker Xavier Smith, who was in on a team high 15 tackles.
ECU defensive tackle Rick D’Abreu was involved in 10 stops with five solos.
Navy had scored 76, 56 and 66 points in its last three trips to Dowdy-Ficklen. ECU’s lone win in the series came on the road in 2011 by a 38-35 margin.
There were 3,500 on hand on a sunny afternoon to see Navy’s ground-oriented attack The visitors threw just five times. Attendance was limited to seven percent of capacity under the most recent restrictions. The socially-distanced gathering witnessed improvement.
“Positivity, belief,” Houston said when asked about factors that had changed thinking and performance within the program. “You hear coaches talking about the process. That’s what it is. Our kids believe in the way we do things and they do things right.”