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Goal-line gaffe dooms Pirates in rookie QB matchup

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East Carolina's Holton Ahlers (12) along with other players and head coach Scottie Montgomery, back left, walk off of the field at halftime during their game against Central Florida on Oct. 20, 2018. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, October 20, 2018

A wet ball proved to be the first major stumbling block in the first-career start by East Carolina freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers in a 37-10 loss to Central Florida on Saturday night.

After marching his trailing Pirates to the UCF goal line early in the fourth quarter, Ahlers tried a jump pass at the line of scrimmage on third down. It fluttered in his hand before falling into the grasp of Knight defender Nate Evans, who scrambled 94 yards the other direction for a touchdown and a commanding 30-10 lead.

The play effectively unraveled an otherwise promising first start for Ahlers, who instead of squaring off against UCF Heisman Trophy candidate QB McKenzie Milton, battled opposite of UCF backup Darriel Mack. Ahlers threw for 406 yards and rushed for a team-high 69 yards, but he turned the ball over three times.

Mack, meanwhile, rushed for 120 to lead his own team and stole the show after a slow start.

“I tried to throw it away and the ball was wet and it slipped. It was terrible,” Ahlers said. “That’s on me though. We’ve got to learn from that, and I’m going to learn from that. I talked to them about that, and it’s not going to happen again.

“Even though I’m a freshman, I can’t make freshman mistakes because I’m the starting quarterback. My job is to lead them to win, and I felt like tonight without those three turnovers then we are in this game.”

Milton, meanwhile, appeared to be business as usual during warm-ups but never appeared in the game after dealing with an apparent injury. He was poised on the sideline to come into the game when the score was close, but never was needed.

Instead, the redshirt freshman Mack carried the load for UCF, including scoring on a key 7-yard keeper in the second quarter to stake the Knights a 20-3 edge.

ECU head coach Scottie Montgomery said it was unexpected to not face Milton, saying UCF did a great job of hiding the apparent injury all week. Montgomery also admitted it took some adjusting to handle the larger Mack, who also had a long TD run in the fourth quarter called back on a holding penalty.

As for the performance of Ahlers, Montgomery called the goal-line gaffe one of his new starting passer’s few miscues.

“Basically the only read is take the ball and throw it or throw it out of the back of the end zone,” Montgomery said of the play. “He went to throw it, and he said the ball was wet and when he went to grip it, he couldn’t throw it or throw out of bounds. That was unfortunate, but it was one of his very few mistakes in this football game. He was really ready for that opportunity and understood the situation.”

It was the first time this season ECU stuck to one quarterback for the entire game.

Contact Nathan Summers at nsummers@reflector.com, 252-329-9595 and follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.

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