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UCF extends streak as Pirates fall 37-10

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East Carolina freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers is lifted up by lineman Garrett McGhin after Ahlers lost a fumble and Central Florida returned it for a touchdown during the fourth quarter at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Oct. 20, 2018.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, October 20, 2018

As the final seconds ticked off the clock at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday night, two numbers still resonated with the matchup between 10th-ranked Central Florida and upset-minded East Carolina.

One. Twenty.

Freshman quarterback and Greenville native Holton Ahlers was making his first start and he brought new energy to the offense and helped the Pirates gain an early lead, but UCF settled in and used five takeaways to extend its nation-best win streak to 20 games with a 37-10 victory.

Ahlers passed for 406 yards on 29-of-53 accuracy with one touchdown and one interception. He rushed 27 times for 69 yards — the Pirates’ running backs totaled 21 yards on 11 carries — and the rookie from D.H. Conley High School lost two fumbles.

ECU (2-5, 0-4 American Athletic Conference) finished with a 496-427 advantage in yards, but no turnovers by UCF (7-0, 4-0) played a huge role in it staving off the Pirates’ upset bid. The Knights also unexpectedly played without injured star quarterback McKenzie Milton.

“When things go the wrong way, (I just wanted to) be the leader on the sideline and let them know it was going to be all right,” Ahlers said. “We had too many turnovers, and I talked to the offense about that. I had three of them, so that’s on me and we have to get better from it.”

ECU was working on a potential 99-yard scoring drive early in the fourth quarter, and seven points would have resulted in cutting the Knights’ lead to 23-17. Anthony Scott ran for 2 yards on first-and-goal from the 4-yard line, then Ahlers ran for a yard.

A jump pass then failed when the ball slipped away from Ahlers, and linebacker Nate Evans scooped the fumble and rumbled to a 94-yard touchdown to make it 30-10 with 10:07 remaining.

The Pirates turned the ball over again on their next drive, this time on a Deondre Farrier strip after a reception, and a 74-yard dash by Greg McCrae created the final score of 37-10.

“The offensive story was just turnovers,” Pirate coach Scottie Montgomery said. “Holton Ahlers played an incredible game and he did have a couple of mistakes, but I think he is going to be a fantastic player here. … We had some mental errors in some situations where Holton looked like he was to blame for some of those plays, but some of our routes weren’t where they were supposed to be.

“Our receivers did do a better job tonight of getting in the spots we asked them to do. When you are playing against the No. 10 team in the country, you have to play penalty-free and mistake-free and you definitely can’t have that many turnovers.”

UCF scored 17 unanswered points after a Trevon Brown 29-yard TD reception made it 20-10 Knights with 6:04 remaining in the third. The visitors also scored 20 unanswered points after facing a 3-0 deficit.

Ahlers and Montgomery both said the ball slipped away from the QB, who became ECU’s first true freshman starting quarterback since Oct. 16, 1993, during the jump pass play. Ahlers had been used a reverse QB and running specialist until Saturday night.

“We’ve ran that a lot in practice, ever since the (North) Carolina (win on Sept. 8), and I jumped up to throw it and (the receiver) was mashed,” Ahlers said. “The ball was wet and I was trying to throw it away and it slipped.”

Milton was banged up last week in a one-point win at Memphis and had his consecutive starts streak stopped at 27 games. His replacement, redshirt freshman Darriel Mack Jr., shook off a slow start to finish with 120 yards on 22 carries and one TD. He was 12-of-20 passing for 69 yards.

He found pay dirt from 7 yards out for a key touchdown run with 4:50 until halftime, making it 20-3 Knights.

ECU led 3-0 at the end of the first quarter, but the visitors took control of the game during the next period and led 20-3 at halftime.

Ahlers’ first-career turnover was an interception, when the score was 3-3, and the second was a lost fumble when it was 13-3 UCF.

Mack’s 7-yard TD run came on the ensuing possession.

UCF also hit on a double pass to speedy running back Adrian Killins during the second quarter. Third-string QB Quadry Jones lined up at receiver and caught a lateral from Mack and then made it an easy toss to a streaking Killins for a 42-yard score.

It was the visitors’ first TD of the game, at the 8:33 mark in the second period. UCF kicker Matthew Wright finished 3-for-3 on field goals.

“We came out and wanted to shock the world, and we were in several instances where we could have,” said ECU senior linebacker Cannon Gibbs, who had a few big hits in the first quarter as part of an eight-tackle outing on a defensive effort that was led by Devon Sutton’s career-high 12 stops and a sack. “That is what is disappointing.”

UCF had outscored its opponents by a total count of 84-34 in the first quarter this season.

It was ECU that go off to a needed fast start.

A scramble and heave by Ahlers late in the first quarter to Farrier for 41 yards set up the Pirates for a 3-0 edge. Jake Verity made a 34-yard field goal at the 6:22 mark, giving the Pirates their first lead in a game since Verity made a game-winning FG during the final minute against Old Dominion on Sept. 29.

UCF coming to Greenville marked the first time the Pirates hosted a top-10 team since early in the 2008 season, when ECU upset No. 8 West Virginia 24-3.

Quarterback Reid Herring, a sophomore who started the Pirates’ first six games, was inactive. He was involved in a car accident Thursday and still dealing with concussion symptoms.

“It is kind of hard for me to comment on, because there is evaluations and it just happened on Thursday,” Montgomery said. “It’s so public with everything that he has had to go through and it’s unfortunate, but his teammates have his back and he’ll be back soon.”

In addition to Ahlers, East Carolina’s offense featured two more freshman starters in center Peyton Winstead and receiver Leroy Henley.

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

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