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

Nov 13, 2020; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; East Carolina Pirates quarterback Holton Ahlers (12) snaps the ball against the Cincinnati Bearcats in the first half at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Pirates wrap up shortened season with visit from SMU

SMU had been one of a small group of programs largely unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic, both from an in-house and scheduling perspective. That was until last weekend.

For the first time since their nonconference matchup against TCU was postponed Sept. 11, the Mustangs had their schedule interrupted when their American Athletic Conference game against Houston was rescheduled for Dec. 5, a result of COVID-19 issues within the Cougars’ program.

SMU played eight games over a nine-week stretch prior to the postponement with the Cougars, and the Mustangs (7-2, 4-2 American) will travel to East Carolina (2-6, 2-5) on Saturday to face the Pirates at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium feeling something foreign: rejuvenated after a week off.

“I think this time of year everybody’s beat up and from a physical standpoint we definitely were,” Mustangs coach Sonny Dykes said. “But I think probably as much as anything else mentally we were a little fatigued and a little tired. If you go back and look at our schedule really since our guys reported, we haven’t had consecutive days off since August sometime. And the reason we haven’t is we didn’t want our players to go home.

“I felt like from the very beginning if we could keep them together and keep them around people who were being tested, that would increase the likelihood of being able to play games and keep guys healthy. So that’s been our approach: we haven’t had a lot of days off.”

Once the Houston postponement was announced, Dykes lightened the midweek practice load, allowing the Mustangs time to regroup before resuming practice over the weekend. On Sunday, the Mustangs followed a morning weightlifting session with an afternoon practice, and Dykes was pleased with the way the players approached the workload, recognizing the benefit of rest.

The Mustangs had suffered a disappointing 28-24 loss at Tulsa the previous Saturday. Getting an extra week to recover could prove beneficial as SMU prepares for the closing stretch.

“I think our guys are in a lot better spot than they were at this time last week,” Dykes said. “Both mentally and physically.”

East Carolina had its first three games of the season wiped out. A bout with South Carolina was canceled when the SEC settled on a conference-only schedule. Nonconference games with Marshall and Norfolk State were taken off the books thanks to COVID-19 issues.

As a result, East Carolina will play its regular-season finale against the Mustangs. That fact would seem anomalous, but given everything that has unfolded across the country, the Pirates are taking that reality in stride.

It certainly helps that East Carolina snapped a four-game losing skid with its 28-3 road win over Temple last weekend. With Senior Day at hand, the Pirates are aiming to carry the momentum of their previous contest through this weekend and to end the year on a high.

“That was my message to the team Sunday,” Pirates coach Mike Houston said. “There’s no doubt they feel the exact same way. You want to finish the season strong and put together a complete ball game. We did that a little bit against South Florida and Tulsa. There were some strong phases against Navy and Temple. As far as everything clicking in all three phases, we haven’t done that this year.

“That was a big thing I talked to them about Sunday. I promise you that they want to.”

–Field Level Media

Nov 13, 2020; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; East Carolina Pirates defensive lineman Chris Willis (99) celebrates after securing a fumble by the Cincinnati Bearcats in the first half at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Snead helps East Carolina knock off Temple

Tyler Snead scored on a 95-yard kickoff return and a 46-yard reception, leading East Carolina to a 28-3 win over the host Temple in an American Athletic Conference game on Saturday in Philadelphia.

Kickoff was delayed 50 minutes due to COVID-19 protocol issues. According to reports, a non-playing close personal contact of a Temple player tested positive for COVID-19.

The Pirates (2-6, 2-5 AAC) snapped a four-game losing streak, and they did it against a team that had beaten them in each of the past six years.

Temple (1-6, 1-6) has lost five straight games.

Snead, a sophomore who entered the game with 12 career touchdowns, had 244 all-purpose yards against Temple. On his kickoff return, he broke through three weak attempts at tackles and escaped injury despite diving into some empty end-zone seats.

Pirates quarterback Holton Ahlers completed 11 of 22 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception. He also ran for 70 yards and one score.

Kamal Gray, a true freshman walk-on, started at quarterback for the Owls, who have lost their top three passers due to injury or illness. He completed 10 of 18 passes for 95 yards and was intercepted once.

Gray was benched in the third quarter and replaced with wide receiver Branden Mack.

On a day in which the depleted Owls had just 51 scholarship players — and 26 of those were freshmen — defensive end Evan Boozer was a rare Temple standout, blocking a field goal and recovering a fumble.

East Carolina scored first, taking a 7-0 lead on Ahlers’ 60-yard pass to C.J. Johnson with 33 seconds remaining in the opening quarter. Prior to that, Pirates kicker Jake Verity missed a field goal from 35 yards and had a 42-yarder blocked by Boozer.

Temple linebacker Jordan Magee came up with his first career interception and returned it 45 yards to the East Carolina 18-yard line. Temple’s offense, however, failed to get a first down, settling for Rory Bell’s 28-yard field goal with 11:36 left in the first half.

East Carolina stretched its lead to 14-3 as Snead took the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown.

Temple seemed set up to close its deficit after Boozer recovered Rahjai Harris’ fumble at the East Carolina 21.

But Shawn Dourseau intercepted Gray’s pass in the end zone for a touchback, and East Carolina put together a two-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, heading to halftime with a 21-3 lead. The drive consisted of Keaton Mitchell’s 34-yard run and Snead’s 46-yard reception.

The Pirates went up 28-3 in the third quarter on Ahlers’ 1-yard run. The TD was set up by Ahlers’ 75-yard scramble.

East Carolina cruised from there, earning its first win since Oct. 10 at South Florida.

–Field Level Media

Nov 13, 2020; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; East Carolina Pirates running back Keaton Mitchell (25) runs with the ball against  Cincinnati Bearcats linebacker Brody Ingle (10) in the first half at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Temple, ECU aim to end skids, earn second win

Two American Athletic Conference football teams desperate to end four-game losing streaks will meet in Philadelphia on Saturday.

The host Temple Owls (1-5, 1-5 AAC) are slight favorites over the East Carolina Pirates (1-6, 1-5), and that makes sense. After all, the Owls have beaten the Pirates for six straight years, including 27-17 last season.

In that game, a bank of stadium lights shut off with 3:52 left in the fourth quarter, delaying the contest 15 minutes.

That’s the way things have been going lately for the Owls and Pirates. Each team’s only win this season was against South Florida, which is winless in league play. East Carolina beat USF, 44-24. Temple beat USF, 39-37, a week later.

Temple coach Rod Carey, who guided the Owls to an 8-5 record and a bowl game last year in his first season running the program, is struggling with depth. Due in large part to COVID-19 and contact tracing, Carey had only 45 available players — including 16 walk-ons — last week in a 38-13 loss to UCF.

That defeat clinched Temple’s first losing season since 2013.

“I would not have played the past three weeks,” Carey said of the injury/illness issues, “but I am not the decision-maker.”

Meanwhile, East Carolina, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2014, is led by second-year coach Mike Houston, who likely sees the Owls as his best chance to get a second win since the schedule ends next week against 7-2 SMU.

“Both us and Temple have been through so much adversity,” Houston said, “but you keep competing every day. One us will come out with a big win (on Saturday), and that will be something to celebrate in the locker room.”

Temple quarterback Matt Duncan — a true freshman who is 0-for-2 passing in mop-up duty this season — is set to get his first start on Saturday. The 6-1, 215-pounder from South Carolina is in the lineup due to injuries/illnesses to the three players who had been ahead of him on the depth chart.

Most notably, starter Anthony Russo went down with a shoulder injury and then tested positive for COVID-19. He will miss his fourth straight game, but, prior to that, he had given Temple solid play — 68.1 percent passing and nine touchdowns with six interceptions.

One issue for Duncan could be the blocking of a young offensive line that last week played two redshirt freshmen, also due to health issues.

Duncan, who had never taken a college snap before last week, likely will rely on senior running back Tayvon Ruley, who had a strong game last week (23 carries, 90 yards). For the season, Ruley has run for 258 yards and one touchdown.

The strength of the Temple team could be its trio of senior wide receivers: Jadan Blue (41 catches, five TDs), Randle Jones (31 catches, two TDs) and Branden Mack (22 catches, three TDs).

East Carolina is led by junior quarterback Holton Ahlers, a third-year starter who has improved his completion percentage each season (.483, .597, .615). He has thrown for 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions this year.

Last year, Ahlers set school single-game records for TD passes (six) and yards passing (535). He also ranked 12th in the nation in passing yards per game (282.2).

Freshmen running backs Rahjai Harris (559 yards, 4.9 average) and Keaton Mitchell (272 yards, 4.9 average) power the ground attack while Ahlers’ main targets are third-year wide receivers Tyler Snead (43 catches, three TDs) and Blake Proehl (40 catches, two TDs). Snead and Proehl are known as sure-handed receivers who run efficient routes.

–Field Level Media

Nov 13, 2020; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; East Carolina Pirates quarterback Holton Ahlers (12) throws a pass against the Cincinnati Bearcats in the first half at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Ridder throws 3 TD passes as No. 7 Cincinnati routs ECU

Desmond Ridder threw for three touchdowns and ran for another as No. 7 Cincinnati defeated visiting East Carolina 55-17 on Friday.

Ridder, who was 24 of 31 for 327 yards, accounted for three scores en route to a 35-10 halftime lead for the Bearcats (7-0, 5-0 American Athletic Conference).

He opened the scoring with a 10-play, 79-yard drive that culminated in a 33-yard TD pass to Michael Young on the Bearcats’ first possession.

East Carolina (1-6, 1-5) took its fourth consecutive loss.

The Bearcats, fifth nationally in scoring defense (11.7 points per game), struck on the first play of the second quarter when Jarell White made it 14-0 with a 26-yard interception return. He picked off a pass from Holton Ahlers (9 of 20 for 87 yards and three interceptions).

Keaton Mitchell cut the deficit in half four minutes later with an 18-yard rushing score on a three-play series that started with his run for 14 yards followed by his 26-yard catch.

Mitchell had 124 yards on 17 carries.

Cincinnati responded with Jerome Ford’s 24-yard run to go up 21-7. After Jake Verity’s 32-yard field goal made it 21-10, the Bearcats recovered an onside kick and Ridder threaded a 45-yard TD pass to Tre Tucker on the next play. Ridder’s 7-yard TD run with 1:32 left in the half put Cincinnati ahead by 25.

Ridder, who also rushed for 75 yards, padded the lead with 29 seconds left in the third quarter on a 12-yard throw to Jayshon Jackson. Ford added a 1-yard TD run with 5:41 left to make it 49-10, capping a drive kept alive by a fake punt.

East Carolina’s Rahjai Harris rushed for a 1-yard TD with 17 seconds remaining to mark the first time the Bearcats allowed more than 13 points in six games.

Cameron Young then ran for a 75-yard TD for Cincinnati with 10 seconds left.

Cincinnati extended its school-record home winning streak to 19 games, the fourth-longest active streak among FBS schools.

The Bearcats end the regular season with three straight road games beginning Nov. 21 at UCF.

East Carolina plays at Temple on Nov. 21.

–Field Level Media

Oct 23, 2020; Tampa, Florida, USA; Tulsa Golden Hurricane linebacker Zaven Collins (23) returns an interception for a touchdown in the second half against the South Florida Bulls at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Tulsa welcomes East Carolina for delayed home debut

In their long-belated 2020 home opener, the Tulsa Golden Hurricane will welcome American Athletic Conference counterpart East Carolina on Friday night.

After losing its sole nonconference game to Oklahoma State on Sept. 19, Tulsa (2-1, 2-0 AAC) has posted back-to-back wins in league play. Most recently, the Golden Hurricane cruised to a 42-13 rout of South Florida on Oct. 23, their third road game to open the pandemic-shortened season.

A scheduled home game against Cincinnati on Oct. 17 was postponed until Dec. 5 due to a COVID-19 outbreak among the Bearcats.

The Golden Hurricane own consecutive wins against East Carolina, in 2016 and 2019.

A victory on Friday would match Tulsa’s longest-ever streak in the series. The current run ended a six-game East Carolina win streak that spanned both programs’ membership in Conference USA and entrance into the AAC, including the Pirates’ win over the Golden Hurricane in the 2008 C-USA championship game.

Dating to its C-USA days, Tulsa has staked its identity to high-scoring offenses. Its initial success in 2020, however, is owed more to great defensive play.

The Golden Hurricane are allowing 18.3 points per game, good for No. 15 in the nation. In their only loss, they held typically explosive Oklahoma State to just 16 points.

Tulsa is the only defense to hold Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard below 100 yards this season.

“Very impressive defensive performance there,” East Carolina coach Mike Houston said Monday of Tulsa’s showing at Oklahoma State. “We’ve got to do a great job with ball security.”

The Pirates (1-3, 1-2) are coming off a 27-23 loss to visiting Navy on Oct. 17. They trailed by two touchdowns entering the fourth quarter but could not complete the comeback.

Houston’s expressed emphasis on ball security comes just days after the Pirates fumbled four times against Navy, two of which were lost.

East Carolina has committed nine turnovers through its first four games and ranks tied for 73rd in FBS teams with a minus-2 turnover margin on the campaign.

In contrast, Tulsa ranks among the country’s best in turnover margin at plus-3. Linebacker Zaven Collins — a 2019 All-AAC honoree — is off to an outstanding start with two interceptions, a forced fumble, 18 solo tackles, four assisted tackles, three sacks and a safety.

Collins made his second pick of the season in the Friday romp at South Florida, and he returned it 38 yards for a touchdown. The Golden Hurricane forced three turnovers and limited the Bulls’ offense to 4.4 yards per play, even though Tulsa was without four defensive starters.

“We knew things like this could happen throughout the season,” Montgomery said. “We told our guys, ‘You’ve got to prepare yourself each and every week because you never know when that opportunity’s going to come, and when you have it, seize it and make the most of it.’”

The abundance of missing starters, a three-week layoff after the marquee matchup with Cincinnati was postponed, and Tulsa being nearly two months into the season before playing its first home game are all part of the challenges amid the pandemic.

East Carolina endured a pause in activities in August before a series of postponements pushed its season opener to Sept. 26.

Houston told reporters days prior to the Navy game that the Pirates were “dealing with some issues” related to COVID-19 testing. Those problems most significantly impacted the offense, with running backs Darius Pinnix Jr. and Demetrius Mauney and starting quarterback Holton Ahlers all out due to protocols.

As a result, freshman quarterback Mason Garcia was thrown into his first career start. He completed 10 of 20 passes for 104 yards.

Ahlers returned to practice this week. He has thrown for 673 yards and six touchdowns on the season with four interceptions.

–Field Level Media

Oct 10, 2020; Annapolis, Maryland, USA;  Navy Midshipmen fullback Nelson Smith (43) runs for a second half touchdown against the Temple Owls at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Navy’s option won’t surprise ECU

In his 25-year career at Navy as an assistant and head coach, Ken Niumatololo has been immersed in a disciplined, consistent approach with a commitment to triple-option football – in part owing to the fact that few teams around the country employ the ground-first offense.

It has worked to the point that Niumatololo earned his 100th victory at Annapolis last week in his 14th season.

This week, however, he’s aware that his team’s opponent — East Carolina, with a first-year coaching staff — will be familiar with the challenge of facing the unusual offense.

“It’s not like we’re going to sneak up on them or anything,” Niumatalolo said of the Pirates, with coach Mike Houston. “Coach Houston is very well versed in the triple option. The things we do are not going to be anything new for him. They’ve got a lot of guys on their staff who have seen what we have done.”

The Midshipmen have been especially solid against East Carolina during Niumatololo’s tenure, a trend they hope to maintain when they visit their American Athletic Conference rivals on Saturday afternoon.

Navy (2-2, 2-0 AAC) is coming off a 31-29 victory over Temple, and despite two blowout defeats this season to Brigham Young and Air Force, looks to move to 3-0 atop the American Atlantic Conference.

Against ECU, Navy has won four straight overall in the series, including last year’s 42-10 home victory, scoring touchdowns on its first four possessions and stifling the Pirates after that.

Houston knows falling behind against a team playing the option can make things particularly difficult.

“Hopefully we can get off to a much better start and be much more effective this year,” he said. “Obviously, being able to be productive offensively is going to be an important factor.”

Houston’s experience with the triple-option dates to more than a decade ago, when he was defensive coordinator for option-devotee Fred Goldsmith at Lenoir-Rhyne.

“The program was in bad shape and Coach Goldsmith needed to do something to improve the situation quickly,” Houston told the Capital-Gazette. “Coach Goldsmith decided to use the triple-option to give Lenoir-Rhyne an advantage and find a niche for recruiting.”

It’s similar to Niumatololo’s approach at Navy. When Houston was tapped to succeed the retiring Goldsmith, he continued using the triple-option at Lenoir-Rhyne, and later used it effectively as head coach at The Citadel.

“We’re facing a machine next week,” Houston said. “Navy football, I’ve watched them for years. We spent a lot of time watching their stuff. They do it as good as anybody in the country.”

ECU (1-2, 1-1) is coming off an offensive eruption, defeating South Florida 44-24 a week ago. Holton Ahlers was 17-for-26 passing for 222 yards and three touchdowns, while Rahjai Harris rushed 19 times for 175 yards and two scores.

“Our offensive line is the biggest reason for the improvement in both our passing game and our running game,” Houston said. “I thought they played very, very well. The second week for that group together, which I think that was a big factor. They really cut down on the missed assignments. Played much more cohesive and grouped together.”

With new defensive coordinator Blake Harrell in place at ECU, Niumatololo expects an enhanced approach from the Pirates’ defense.

“There’s no doubt in my mind those guys are going to be ready,” he said. “I’m sure they’ve had our game circled. This is going to be a tough game, because their DC has seen it. Coach Houston, for many years, he was the head coach of teams that ran option. They know option football.”

Attendance at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium will be limited to seven percent of capacity.

“It’s still only going to be 3,500 fans or so, but at least it’s going to be 3,500 fans,” Houston said. “It’s going to be people that are passionate about the Pirates. I look forward to having them in the stands on Saturday.”

–Field Level Media

Oct 10, 2020; Tampa, Florida, USA;  East Carolina Pirates quarterback Holton Ahlers (12) rushes during the first quarter of a game against the South Florida Bulls at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

Ahlers’ TD tosses lead East Carolina past South Florida

Holton Ahlers tossed three touchdown passes to help East Carolina post a 44-24 victory over South Florida on Saturday night in an American Athletic Conference matchup at Tampa, Fla.

Rahjai Harris rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries, and CJ Johnson caught three passes for 99 yards and two scores for East Carolina (1-2, 1-1 AAC).

Darius Pinnix also caught a touchdown pass, and Jake Verity kicked three field goals while the left-handed Ahlers was 17-of-26 passing for 222 yards for the Pirates.

Johnny Ford rushed for two touchdowns for South Florida (1-3, 0-2). Jordan McCloud completed 26 of 35 passes for 298 yards, and Latrell Williams caught eight passes for 93 yards.

The victory was just the second for East Carolina in 11 meetings with the Bulls.

The Pirates outgained South Florida 432-398.

After the teams combined for 48 first-half points, the defenses carried the way in the second half.

East Carolina scored the first points of the half with 10 seconds left in the third quarter when Ahlers threw a 14-yard strike to Johnson to extend the lead to 38-17.

Verity added fourth-quarter field goals of 42 and 37 yards to boost the margin to 27, while the Bulls were unable to score until backup quarterback Noah Johnson found the end zone on a 15-yard scramble with 31 seconds left.

Ahlers threw two touchdown passes and Harris rushed for two scores as East Carolina held a 31-17 halftime lead.

Ford’s 8-yard run gave South Florida a 7-3 lead with 9:12 left in the first quarter before the Pirates scored the next 21 points. Ahlers threw touchdowns passes of 2 yards to Pinnix and 75 yards to Johnson as East Carolina led 17-7 after the first stanza.

Harris broke loose on a 42-yard scoring scamper with 13:18 left in the half.

Ford scored on a 7-yard run to cut the Bulls’ deficit to 24-14 with 4:58 remaining, but Harris answered with a 10-yard scoring run to push the margin to 17 before South Florida’s Jared Sackett kicked a 31-yard field goal with 33 seconds left to end the first-half scoring.

–Field Level Media

Oct 3, 2020; Cincinnati, OH, USA; South Florida Bulls wide receiver DeVontres Dukes (18) covered by Cincinnati Bearcats cornerback Coby Bryant (7)during the third quarter at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

East Carolina, USF still seeking first win

When the East Carolina Pirates visit the South Florida Bulls on Saturday, both teams will be looking for their first American Athletic Conference victory of the season.

The Pirates (0-2, 0-1 AAC), led by second-year coach Mike Houston, rank sixth among the nine AAC teams that have played a game this year in average points scored (28.5). East Carolina’s defense is last in the AAC in points (50.0) and also yards allowed (558.5).

In addition, the Pirates have yet to sack the quarterback, and they are a league-worst minus-four on turnover differential.

East Carolina’s red-zone defense has been unable to come up with a turnover or a stop that keeps an opponent off the board. On 12 trips, Pirates opponents have 12 scores — five passing touchdowns, four running TDs and three field goals.

Among the Pirates’ top performers on offense are quarterback Holton Ahlers and wide receivers Tyler Snead and Blake Proehl.

Ahlers, a junior, is fourth in the league with 228.5 passing yards per game. Last year, he ranked ninth in FBS in total yardage (3,746). Snead and Proehl are tied for fourth in the league with 6.5 receptions per game.

The Pirates should be able to put up some offensive numbers on Saturday — but only if they avoid the turnovers that have plagued them so far. In a season-opening 51-28 loss to Central Florida, East Carolina lost three straight fumbles and also had an interception. Then, in a 49-29 loss to Georgia State last week, Ahlers was intercepted three times. East Carolina is also averaging 101 yards in penalties in two games.

“All those mistakes,” Houston said, “you just can’t keep making them.”

Meanwhile, the Bulls (1-2, 0-1), coached by former Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, have faced a tough schedule. After a 27-6 season-opening win over The Citadel, the Bulls lost 52-0 to No. 5 Notre Dame and 28-7 to No. 11 Cincinnati.

USF tied a school record last week by picking off five passes in the loss to Cincinnati.

“Our defense kept us in the game,” Scott said. “But we didn’t play complementary football. Our offense wasn’t very good.”

Scott, however, did see a bright side.

“We’ve played top-15 teams the past two weeks,” he said, “and our guys are getting good experience.”

The Bulls, who had a game against Florida Atlantic postponed due to unspecified COVID-19 issues, were without 12 players against Cincinnati, including eight on defense.

Offensively, the Bulls have used four quarterbacks in three games: sophomore Jordan McCloud; North Carolina transfer Cade Fortin; Alcorn State transfer Noah Johnson and true freshman Katravis Marsh.

With the QB position so unsettled, it has caused some issues on a Bulls offense that ranks last in the league, scoring just 11.3 points per game.

That sets up a matchup between an East Carolina defense that can stop no one so far, and a USF offense that stalls out regularly. It’s an East Carolina pass rush that has sacked no one and a USF blocking wall that has allowed eight sacks, tied for worst in the league.

On the other side of the ball, Glenn Spencer — who is USF’s new defensive coordinator — is making progress. His Bulls secondary ranks first in the league with just 125 passing yards allowed per game.

Junior linebacker Antonio Grier leads USF in sacks, ranking seventh in the league. And junior safety Nick Roberts is tied with Grier for the team lead in tackles.

–Field Level Media

Sep 19, 2020; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Georgia State Panthers head coach Shawn Elliott reacts on the sidelines against the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin Cajuns during the first half at Center parc Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia State too much for East Carolina

Cornelious Brown passed for 238 yards and three touchdowns as Georgia State built a 22-point halftime lead and rolled to a 49-29 victory over East Carolina at Atlanta on Saturday.

Sam Pinckney caught seven passes for 134 yards and two scores for the Panthers (1-1). Destin Coates rushed for 113 yards on 23 carries and two touchdowns.

East Carolina (0-2) scored all three of its touchdowns on defense or special teams. Pirates quarterback Holton Ahlers was intercepted three times.

Georgia State jumped to a 35-13 halftime lead despite an early turnover.

Brown was picked off by Warren Saba on the first play from scrimmage at the goal line, giving East Carolina a quick 7-0 lead.

The second Georgia State possession went much more smoothly. The Panthers drove 75 yards in five plays for a touchdown, capped by Coates’ 7-yard run.

Georgia State continued to pile on the points in the early going. Brown’s 38-yard TD pass to Pinckney put the Panthers on top 14-7 and Brown’s 22-yard scoring strike to Jamari Thrash made it 21-7.

Tucker Gregg’s 4-yard scoring run early in the second quarter extended Georgia State’s lead to 28-7.

Jake Verity’s 34-yard field goal ended the Panthers’ streak of 28 unanswered points.
Following an East Carolina turnover, Pinckney hauled in his second touchdown catch, a 13-yarder from Brown with 5:26 remaining in the first half.

Verity kicked a 40-yard field goal just before the half ended as Georgia State led 35-13 at the break.

Verity ended what was nearly a scoreless third quarter when he lined a 48-yard field goal through the uprights to cut the deficit to 35-16.

Georgia State’s defense asserted itself early in the fourth quarter. Antavious Lane picked off an Ahlers pass and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown, giving the Panthers a 42-16 lead.

East Carolina faked a field goal with 10:30 left when holder Tyler Snead took the snap and ran 31 yards for a touchdown.

Another special teams play gave the Pirates even more hope. Blake Proehl blocked a Michael Hayes punt and returned it 29 yards for a touchdown, cutting Georgia State’s lead to 42-29.

Coates scored again on a 5-yard run in the final minute.

–Field Level Media