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GAMEDAY: Pirates back in action at USF

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East Carolina receiver Trevon Brown on August 14, 2018. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, September 22, 2018

It has been two weeks since East Carolina has played a football game, and the Pirates spent most of those days in Orlando, Fla., to avoid the direct impact of Hurricane Florence.

They left Orlando for Tampa on Friday and, similar to two weeks ago against North Carolina from the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Pirates (1-1) will play the underdog role tonight at Raymond James Stadium against 3-0 South Florida. The Bulls have wins against Elon, Georgia Tech and Illinois, and this will be their third home game in four weeks. It also will be the Pirates’ first road contest of the young season.

This matchup is the American Athletic Conference opener for two teams seeking to continue recent momentum.

For ECU, which beat UNC 41-19 on Sept. 8, the game comes after spending a week and a half together during stressful and less-than-ideal situations. Players slept in hotel rooms more than they would during a normal game week and they participated in media interviews via teleconferences, but ECU also received unexpected extra time to prepare to take out the favored Bulls, who are receiving votes outside The Associated Press Top 25 rankings.

“We are not seeking any normalcy, but what we are seeking is a great start to our conference schedule,” ECU coach Scottie Montgomery said. “That is why we are here. … We were (in Orlando) to make sure that our student-athletes were protected with what went on, and those are the things we were seeking in making sure our guys were safe and taken care of. Now, what we really want is to get off to a great start in this conference.”

ECUway, emotional win against North Carolina at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium showed a huge sign of improvement on defense. The Tar Heels totaled zero points and 78 yards after ECU led 21-19 at halftime.

East Carolina’s run game roared to 220 yards on 49 carries versus UNC and received a boost with two touchdowns from freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers in his Pirate debut. The conventional running back output was led by Anthony Scott with 17 carries for 73 yards and a score, but Darius Pinnix (65 yards, TD) and Hussein Howe (50 yards) also served as nice complements in addition to Ahlers.

Starting quarterback Reid Herring passed for 290 yards and a TD toss to lead target Trevon Brown, but maybe most importantly the sophomore first-year starter engineered a turnover-free outing. Through two games, Herring is 56-of-97 for 599 yards, three touchdowns and two INTs.

Scott has 29 carries for 107 yards for the year. Ahlers, who did not play in a season-opening upset loss to North Carolina A&T, is one of two freshman QBs in the country with more than one rushing touchdown.

“Our offensive line did a great job to give the running backs holes, and also Holton came in and ran the ball very well,” Herring said of the win over UNC, which gave the Pirates a 5-0 combined record against the Tar Heels and N.C. State since 2012. “That definitely brought a big positive to our offensive game.”

Leading the USF defense will be senior linebacker Khalid McGee, who is the AAC’s top tackler with 34 total stops.

ECU has not forced a turnover this season. The Bulls have snagged four interceptions and feature cornerback Mike Hampton as an active member of the secondary with an INT and three pass breakups.

The Pirates will have to defy the odds, and some history, to upend the Bulls. USF holds a 7-1 all-time lead in the series, including a victory in the 2006 Papajohns.com Bowl and wins the last three years by a combined score of 121-70.

East Carolina’s lone win came in 2014 behind a balanced offense and rushing touchdowns by Scott, Marquez Grayson and Breon Allen.

“I think this upcoming game is going to be just kind of a defining moment for ECU, just to show how hard we’ve been working and what we are coming out with this year,” Pirate defensive lineman Alex Turner said. “With everything that has been going on, we also are playing for the people back home in Greenville. ... We want them to know that we are playing for them and playing for the entire coast in North Carolina and South Carolina.”

Star QB Quinton Flowers fueled USF’s success in recent years against the Pirates and plenty of other teams.

Now it is Blake Barnett, a 6-foot-5, 217-pounder and former QB at Alabama and Arizona State, leading the offense. He helped his squad total 602 yards in the 49-38 win against Georgia Tech and then 626 last week against Illinois.

Barnett was 23-of-40 for 411 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions a week ago. Florida transfer Jordan Cronkrite rushed for 136 yards and a score, and the receiving unit featured 100-yard outputs from Randall St. Felix and Mitch Wilcox along with Darnell Salomon totaling 95 yards and two touchdowns.

Four different USF receivers have at least 11 catches this season, including senior starter Tyre McCants with a team-high 19 grabs for 207 yards.

The Bulls also have excelled in the return game, a unit that also features McCants, but it is speedy true freshman Terrence Horne who has found the most room as the nation’s leader in kickoff return average (47.0) to go with two touchdowns against the Yellow Jackets two weeks ago.

“It’s recruiting and I think they have a done a good job of replacing some of those players (like Flowers) even though it is hard to replace them,” Montgomery said. “I do think there is a learning curve with some young skill guys and usually those show up with points and not yardage, but they are showing with points for them.

“I’m kind of happy we are playing them earlier in the year because the more experience they will have, the more points they will score.”

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Will the East Carolina layoff play a role? One thought is that the Pirates had extra time to prepare for USF with their unexpected off week because of Hurricane Florence. But it also hasn’t been easy for ECU logistically with the team out of its comfort zone and in Florida for a week and a half. The Pirates’ situation might not even play into the flow of this game, but it will be something to watch, especially during the first half.

2. Is special teams a factor? USF is very dangerous in the return game, led by Terrence Horne, but is unsettled on field goals and punting. ECU has one of the best kickoff specialists in the country in Caleb Pratt and still a relatively new punter in Jonn Young. The Pirates have stressed special teams at practice this week, a sign that they are aware of its potential importance.

3. Will Holton Ahlers play? The talented true freshman sat out against North Carolina A&T, a loss, and then played a big part in the 41-19 rout of UNC. Ahlers can only play in four games this season and preserve his redshirt status to still be a freshman next year. Using him in this contest could be telling for the rest of the season.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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