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PIRATE GAMEDAY: Ahlers-led ECU looks to pull shocker on UCF

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RB Hussein Howe

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, October 20, 2018

New starting quarterback Holton Ahlers and East Carolina welcome undefeated Central Florida to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium tonight for a primetime matchup on ESPN2 that many people around the country will at least check in on to see if UCF could get upended.

There is no denying that a win by the Pirates, who are 1-3 since routing North Carolina on Sept. 8, would classify as a major college football upset.

UCF (6-0, 3-0 American Athletic Conference) is ranked No. 10 in the country and is eyeing to continue its surge and make the College Football Playoff at season’s end.

ECU (2-4, 0-3) is looking for a spark from Ahlers, a talented true freshman from D.H. Conley High School who was the No. 1 quarterback recruit in North Carolina a year ago who had been used as a run-first reserve QB for the Pirates. He earned the starting nod after leading two fourth-quarter touchdown drives last week against Houston, including his first-career touchdown pass in a 42-20 loss to the Cougars.

“I’ve had plenty of true freshmen (quarterbacks), and they are going to act like true freshmen,” offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said. “They are going to have good and they are going to have bad. … Holton is just naturally a leader and he’s always been that guy, especially in this town. He brings that to the table, which is great.

“Plus, he’s a grown man and he’s a 6-foot-4, 235-pound guy who is tough to tackle. You can do a lot more with him and be a lot safer with his legs, but they still have to respect him throwing the football.”

Ahlers finished his prep career ranked second in North Carolina High School Athletic Association history with 14,784 total offensive yards.

He is the Pirates’ leading rusher, carrying the ball 38 times for 248 yards and five touchdowns. ECU’s three touchdowns during league play are two Ahlers’ rushes and one passing score.

“This week it is about establishing our quarterback early in the game and trying to make sure that he is settled,” head coach Scottie Montgomery said of starting a rookie QB. “It’s not about starting fast, but about starting really efficient with him and making sure he understands the looks he is going to see and finding out any new looks he is going to see.”

Starting running back Anthony Scott (69-233) has two rushing TDs for the season. Darius Pinnix has a 48-yard rushing TD, and 2017 rushing leader Hussein Howe is averaging 3.7 yards per carry as part of a fluid backfield rotation.

Lead receiver Trevon Brown has an even 500 yards as a senior on 36 receptions.

ECU is looking to improve its pass efficiency and potentially create more turnovers. The Pirates have thrown seven touchdown passes and been intercepted eight times, seven of which were thrown by former starter Reid Herring. ECU opponents have 13 TD passes compared to two interceptions.

Brown had 13 grabs for 153 yards last Saturday, including bringing in a 13-yard touchdown pass from Ahlers late in the loss to Houston.

The Pirates will be facing a similarly difficult challenge versus UCF, a team that Montgomery described as a top-five caliber club.

The Knights haven’t lost since Dec. 17, 2016, in a 31-13 Cure Bowl defeat to Arkansas State.

“I definitely think they have done what they are supposed to do to get ranked as high as they are, and they probably should be a lot higher,” Montgomery said. “They are led on offense by one of the best players in the country in (quarterback) McKenzie Milton. Defensively, they have done such a good job with their speed on the back end to match their physicality up front.”

Last season, the Knights capped their undefeated campaign with a Peach Bowl win over Auburn. Their closest contest thus far during their 19-game win streak came a week ago when they rallied for a 31-30 victory at Memphis.

Milton has been responsible for 22 touchdowns through six games. He has a 16-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Gabriel Davis, a 6-3 sophomore, has been Milton’s favorite target with 33 catches for 493 yards and five TDs. The duo hooked up for a 75-yard touchdown pass against Memphis, which stands as UCF’s longest play of the season.

Pirate defensive coordinator David Blackwell said Milton is the best QB his defense has faced this season, and that the Hawaii native is probably on track to be the AAC offensive player of the year.

Senior ECU defensive end Nate Harvey, who has 8.5 sacks and leads the nation with 17.5 tackles for loss, said hosting the Knights brings about natural excitement for a possible upset. He played on special teams a year ago when ECU traveled to unbeaten UCF, but not on defense.

“Some people look at it as being scared, but I look at it as an opportunity,” he said. “We’re going against a Heisman Trophy (candidate) and that probably won't happen again while I am here. I’m ready to go against him.”

ECU and UCF haven’t played a close game since 2004, when the Pirates were undone by a last-second, 51-yard touchdown heave from Justin Holman to Breshad Perriman that created a shocking 32-30 win for the visitors in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The final scores in the series since then are 44-7 ECU, 47-29 UCF and 63-21 UCF in 2017.

Milton was 21-of-27 passing for 324 yards and two touchdowns in the Knights’ runaway victory in Orlando last season.

“There is an unknown, because of Holton,” Montgomery said. “They are going to have to adjust what they have done some and there’s things they don’t know about us. … We really can’t give up explosive plays on first down, and I think if we can limit those explosive plays on first down then we’ll have a really good chance.”

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Who wins the turnover battle? The turnover ratio is not only tied to how East Carolina true freshman Ahlers performs as a first-time starting quarterback and avoids big mistakes, but also in the Pirates looking for any takeaway opportunities on defense. UCF has thrived again this year in the turnover ratio. ECU ranks 121st in the country with a minus-1.17 turnover margin.

2. How is the atmosphere? After last Saturday night’s announced crowd of 29,851 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and a lackluster vibe to the game, there is another primetime matchup in Greenville, and this one comes against at top-10 team. The Ahlers factor also could result in a slight uptick in attendance and noise level in favor of the Pirates.

3. What is the score at the end of the first quarter? It is a question worth asking again, because the Pirates have faced a 14-0 deficit at the end of the first quarter each of the last two weeks. ECU hasn’t played well as an underdog since a 41-19 home win over North Carolina on Sept. 8. Nothing fuels an upset bid like a hot start.

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

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