Nov 28, 2020; Greenville, North Carolina, USA; East Carolina Pirates quarterback Holton Ahlers (12) waits for the snap against the Southern Methodist Mustangs at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Appalachian State, East Carolina clash in neutral-site affair

As far as East Carolina coach Mike Houston is concerned, it’s time for his team to play a game.

“They are ready to face another opponent,” he said. “It was a successful camp and scrimmages from the standpoint that we know what we have and where we are. We have places that will be our strength, but everybody is just excited to move on to our opening opponent.”

That would be Appalachian State, which the Pirates meet on Thursday night in a neutral site game in Charlotte, N.C. And how they play against the Mountaineers might shed light on how far their rebuilding project is under Houston, their third-year coach.

East Carolina is 7-14 under Houston, including a 3-6 mark in a pandemic-shortened 2020 season. While the American Athletic Conference’s preseason poll predicts it will tie Navy for eighth, internal expectations call for success. The Pirates return a whopping 20 starters, 10 of them on offense.

One of those 10 is quarterback Holton Ahlers, who in 25 career starts has thrown for 7,093 yards and 51 touchdowns.

“It’s refreshing to have the experience coming back that we do have from the guys that played so much last year,” Houston said. “We are bigger, stronger, faster and in better shape.”

Meanwhile, Appalachian State is coming off a 9-3 season under Shawn Clark, making him the only first-year FBS coach to reach nine victories. The Mountaineers return 85 percent of their lettermen, including 17 starters and 14 “super seniors” who opted to come back for a fifth year of eligibility due to COVID-19 rules passed by the NCAA.

What’s more, Appalachian State wasn’t far off from winning 10 or 11 games. Two of its three losses were to Top 25 teams from the suddenly good Sun Belt Conference (Coastal Carolina, Louisiana) and its third loss was to a Marshall team that spent several weeks in the Top 25 later in the year.

“A lot of things to be excited about this season,” Clark said. “Our guys had a great summer. … We look really good.”

The big question is at quarterback, where Zac Thomas has graduated after accounting for 8,281 total yards in his career and going 32-6 as a starter. Chase Brice, who threw for 2,170 yards last year at Duke, is the likely replacement.

–Field Level Media