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WOODWARD: Freshmen face different challenges

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East Carolina's Holton Ahlers watches a replay on the scoreboard of him fumbling the ball during the fourth quarter at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium against 10th-ranked Central Florida.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Monday, October 22, 2018

As one freshman quarterback laid flat on the ground near the east end zone at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium late Saturday night and watched a defensive player race to the other end for a back-breaking, fourth-quarter touchdown, another freshman quarterback stood on the visiting sideline and felt comfort in knowing a victory was being sealed in his first-ever start.

The scene was a microcosm for where East Carolina and undefeated Central Florida are in this point of the college football season and with their programs within in the American Athletic Conference.

ECU (2-5, 0-4 AAC) needed freshman and Greenville native Holton Ahlers to spark the team and the fan base. He did so in a losing effort with a passionate performance of 406 passing yards and a team-best 69 rushing yards on a game-high 27 carries.

Furthermore, a win by ECU probably would have required all-time heroic performance by Ahlers amid relentless pressure by the Knights’ defensive front. That type of outcome was prevented with the prized recruit from D.H. Conley High School being charged with three of the team’s five turnovers. The other two were fumbles by receivers.

Redshirt freshman Darriel Mack Jr. surprisingly filled in for UCF star QB McKenzie Milton, a Heisman Trophy candidate who was banged up in previous games, and Mack’s game-high 120 rushing yards and turnover-free outing played a role in the Knights’ 37-10 victory. He only attempted 20 passes, completing 12 for 69 yards.

UCF didn’t need Mack to be a hero, but for him to simply manage the team’s collective effort for a 20th straight win.

Mack likely will be back on the bench Nov. 1 against Temple, while Ahlers’ career seemingly is on the uptick and he already has proven that he is the best quarterback for East Carolina.

Mack didn’t look comfortable during the first quarter, when ECU led 3-0, and it was a tight second period when the Knights did break through with a trick play. Mack threw a lateral pass to third-string quarterback Quadry Jones lining up at receiver, and Jones tossed an easy touchdown to starting running back Adrian Killins for 42 yards and a 13-3 lead with 8:33 until halftime.

Aside from that quick strike, UCF was able to sit Milton and mainly methodically move the ball well enough behind speedy talent and Mack’s steady outing.

Mack was not on the field for the most important play of the game, which also was ECU’s attempt at a trick play early in the fourth quarter.

Ahlers and the Pirates were 1 yard away from completing a 99-yard touchdown drive when disaster struck on third-and-goal in the form of Ahlers’ most costly gaffe of the night. He ran toward the line of scrimmage and then stopped and jumped for a Tim Tebow-esque pop pass to tight end Johnny Bogle, who was covered and that caused Ahlers to adjust in the air and the ball slipped away for a fumble.

A touchdown would have resulted in UCF clinging to a 23-17 edge.

The play working to perfection also would have involved freshman center Peyton Winstead snapping to freshman QB Ahlers to throwing a TD to another freshman in Bogle. All three players were in high school last fall.

What happened instead was UCF senior Kyle Gibson rushed in freely and knocked Ahlers’ arm in conjunction with the ball slipping away from the 6-foot-3, 236-pound left-hander. Junior linebacker Nate Evans quickly scooped up the fumble and sped away to the end zone.

Those fine details show how the Knights are able to mostly rely on their veteran and proven players during the stretch run of the season, while ECU coach Scottie Montgomery is having to turn to youth to try and steer the Pirate ship back in the right direction while facing battle-tested AAC squads.

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

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