BIRMINGHAM — The face of the East Carolina football program wore a smile on Tuesday night after a thorough 53-29 victory over Coastal Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.
That countenance, of course, belonged to quarterback Holton Ahlers, who was named bowl MVP after passing for 300 yards and five touchdowns as the Pirates celebrated a postseason victory for the first time since 2013 in his last game for ECU.
“One final game and we had a month to prepare for it, I better have played good,” said the left-handed flinger from D.H. Conley, who enhanced the Keaton Mitchell-led ground game with 48 yards and another touchdown. His five passing TDs and six total were records for the 16th annual bowl.
Ahlers confirmed after the game that he had played with a torn labrum in his right shoulder since the third series of the season-opening game with N.C. State.
Ahlers was sharp from the get-go at Protective Stadium with an ESPN audience looking on, completing his first five passes on the first series of the game. The Pirates threw first and let Mitchell race through the resulting seams for 127 yards and a score on 22 carries. The receiving corps’ balanced production was led by C.J. Johnson with seven catches for 83 yards and a TD.
Isaiah Winstead added six catches for 72 yards and two scores. Ahlers found Jaylen Johnson five times for 66 yards and one touchdown. Tight end Shane Calhoun had two catches on a late drive, including the score. Ahlers also snared a pass from C.J. Johnson, his high school teammate, for 14 yards.
Ahlers did it all, which included helping douse Coach Mike Houston with 48 seconds to go and leading the band in the fight song afterward.
The Pirates (8-5) had to settle for a 28-yard field goal from Andrew Conrad on their first series but moved 77 yards for a 10-0 lead on their second possession. Mitchell had a 46-yard run to start the 6-play drive, which ended with a 27-yard strike to Winstead on a 4th-and-6.
The Chanticleers (9-4) came back to lead 14-10 on scoring runs of one yard by Reese White and nine yards by quarterback Grayson McCall, the 3-time Player of the Year in the Sun Belt Conference. McCall was injured on the go-ahead TD with 8:52 left in the first half and did not return. McCall’s back-up, Jarrett Guest, went out in the second half.
“We’re not going to leave any excuses out there,” said interim Coastal coach Chad Staggs. ” … When you’ve got No. 10 (McCall) in the ball game, we’re a little bit better, but Jarrett came in and threw a touchdown pass.”
ECU regained the lead for keeps at 17-14 on an 11-yard toss from Ahlers to Winstead with 6:37 left in the half. Ahlers had a 35-yard completion to Jaylen Johnson to get the Pirates into the red zone.
Mitchell darted into the end zone from a yard out to finish a 63-yard drive and give ECU a 24-14 lead at the half.
Jireh Wilson recovered a fumble on the first snap of the second half at the Coastal 27 and the Pirates extended the advantage to 31-14 as Jaylen Johnson hung on to a 2-yard reception despite getting pounded between two defenders with 11:13 left in the third quarter.
After the Chanticleers closed within 31-21 on Guest’s 47-yard pass to Tyler Roberts, Ahlers went into the end zone on a fourth down from a yard out for a 38-21 lead with 2:36 left in the third.
Ahlers had fourth-quarter TD passes to C.J. Johnson for 15 yards and to Calhoun for one yard. An inside pitch to Mitchell for a 2-point conversion with 2:14 to go accounted for the final points.
ECU’s scoring total was the highest of 21 bowl games played thus far this season as the Pirates completed their seventh straight contest without a turnover, a school record.
Senior safety Gerard Stringer had six solo tackles and one assist with one sack. He forced two fumbles and recovered one. Coastal lost three fumbles.
ECU had a 486-337 lead in total yards. The Pirates out-rushed Coastal, 172-125. A late blocked punt and an uncharacteristic 11 penalties for 130 yards from the Big 12 officiating crew were about the only drawbacks.
ECU had six straight losing seasons before Houston guided the Pirates to a 7-5 record in 2021. The fourth-year ECU coach has restored Pirate Nation’s pride.
Counting losses in Mobile to Texas Christian (28-14 in 1999) and Marshall (64-61 in double overtime in 2001), ECU was 0-for-4 in bowl games in Alabama.
The inspired bowl win and an opening game at Michigan in 2023 should spur offseason development programs for the Pirates.
ECU will compete in a new American Athletic Conference going forward. Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice and Texas San Antonio will be members in 2023 as Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston depart for the Big 12.
The Pirates, whose fans provided the majority of the 15,901 on hand Tuesday night, can savor their 10th bowl triumph for the moment.
Success usually translates into willingness for the fan base to lend its financial support, which is good timing for a fundraising effort underway that includes an indoor practice facility for football.
ECU couldn’t have asked for a better marketing showcase than its performance in the Birmingham Bowl. The Pirates wore throwback purple jerseys and indeed looked representative of the program’s glory days.
“What a great night for Pirate Nation,” Houston said. “So excited for our players. Excited for our fans. Excited for our institution. This has been the goal since we got here to get ECU back to winning, back to being in bowl contention and back to winning bowl games.
” … I couldn’t be more proud of this entire senior class. They’ve been here since day one and they’ll tell you it wasn’t the easiest thing.”
Ahlers always shouldered his share of responsibility — torn labrum and all — when the Pirates struggled. No apologies were necessary as he closed his ECU career.
His happiness and relief were apparent over the position in which he left the program that he grew up wanting to lead.