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GAMEDAY: Pirates begin late-season journey at Tulane

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Kicker Jake Verity.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, November 10, 2018

For East Carolina football to defy the odds and end the regular season with four straight victories for bowl eligibility, such a streak would require beginning with a road win and ending with a road win.

In fact, the only home game remaining for scuffling ECU (2-6, 0-5 American Athletic Conference) is set for next Saturday night against Connecticut.

The Pirates are in New Orleans to face suddenly-hot Tulane (4-5, 3-2) this afternoon, and they will be looking to stop a four-game losing skid. ECU’s two wins are over North Carolina (Sept. 9) and Old Dominion (Sept. 29).

Pirate coach Scottie Montgomery has stressed this week about playing together, referencing that ECU’s offense and defense need to be better in sync unlike in recent losses. ECU had a breakout game on offense last Saturday with 41 points, but it came in a 59-41 setback to Memphis.

Tulane and East Carolina both feature surging quarterbacks — talented freshman Holton Ahlers leads the Pirates and Tulane has 6-foot-3, 210-pound LSU transfer Justin McMillan — who previously were backups until starting the last two games. McMillan has led the Green Wave to consecutive wins.

“We have to take our defense on the road and play well,” said Montgomery, who is 3-18 in AAC games in his three seasons leading the Pirates. “That’s why we had a chance at South Florida (in a 20-13 loss on Sept. 22). Our defense has to go on the road and play well, and now we have added a quarterback that we have to protect and he can move the ball as long as he continues to grow in the offense.”

Ahlers, who began his career as a running-QB specialist behind former starter Reid Herring, attempted 115 total passes in his two starts. He ran the ball 27 times against UCF, then versus Memphis his passing skills shined with a 34-of-62 completion rate for 449 yards and three touchdowns.

Lead receiver Trevon Brown has thrived with Ahlers in charge and is producing at a career-best rate with at least 10 receptions and 145 yards in three straight games. A 10-catch, 193-yard, two-touchdown performance last week gave the senior from Wilmington 56 receptions, 838 yards and six touchdowns for the season.

Montgomery said the team’s entire set of pass-catchers will be important today with the potential for big plays in one-on-one situations against the Green Wave, which has the No. 2 rush defense in the American but is ranked 10th defending the pass.

Deondre Farrier was second on the Pirates a week ago with six receptions for 76 yards. Walk-on Tyler Snead enjoyed his first action of the season with 50 yards and a TD.

East Carolina is 0-2 away from home this year.

“It is a little bit more exciting just because it is my first time, but I think of it like a normal game,” Ahlers said of his first road start. “I prepare the same way every single game. I have always done that and always will.”

Most notable in the Green Wave’s most recent outing, a 41-15 upset at South Florida, was a 368-110 advantage in rushing yardage.

McMillan was only 4-of-11 passing for 61 yards, but he carried the ball 10 times for 55 yards and a touchdown. Darius Bradwell was the game’s leading rusher with 135 yards, and Corey Dauphine finished with 16 carries for 114 yards and two TDs.

Bradwell, a 6-1, 230-pound bruiser, has scored a touchdown in seven straight outings.

“Everybody always talks about handling adversity, but we have had a little bit of success here and not a ton, but a little bit of success, and we have to continue to keep doing the things that have enabled us to have success,” Wave coach Willie Fritz said. “That hasn’t always been the case at Tulane, but what we have to do is ratchet it up a notch and play better and have an even better week of preparation.”

McMillan has not thrown an interception this season. His completion rate is less than 50 percent (28-of-59), but he has three TD passes and three rushing scores. 

Bradwell and Dauphine are both looking to hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark. Bradwell is the leader of the team’s balanced attacked with 118 carries for 752 yards and eight touchdowns.

Even after a forgettable afternoon a week ago in which Memphis racked up 639 yards of offense behind game-breaking running back Darrell Henderson, the Pirates have enjoyed standout defensive line play by end Nate Harvey and others all year. ECU ranks third in the country in tackles for loss, 18th in first down defense and 69th in rush defense at 162.8 ground yards allowed per game.

The Pirates lead the all-time series 11-4, which includes the teams splitting the six matchups in New Orleans.

Last year was a tight contest in Greenville that Tulane won 31-24 in overtime on a goal-line stop of ECU running back Darius Pinnix in OT. Pinnix and Hussein Howe (14 carries, 108 yards) each scored a rushing TD during regulation.

Jake Verity made his lone field goal attempt in the defeat. Now a junior, Verity is 15-for-17 on field goals this year. He tied his career-long with a 52-yarder against Memphis.

The Pirates are hoping for another strong outing by Verity and Ahlers and a complete run game to knock off Tulane and its steady rushing attack.

“We did a lot of good things on offense (last week) and it starts with our quarterback,” Montgomery said. “He is getting better and better. … The offense is coming to him more and more, but one important thing we need to continue to add with our run game is better opportunities and more opportunities for (the running backs). Hussein Howe and Anthony Scott both had over a 4-yard average, and we could have gotten them the ball a little more in certain situations.”

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Which quarterback rushes for more yards? East Carolina’s Holton Ahlers and Tulane QB Justin McMillan are very similar in their lack of starting experience but their explosive and playmaking roles for their teams. Both defenses will have to account for the quarterback run today.

2. What do the Pirates try to attack on defense? Tulane is a tricky team with its unique shotgun-style option rushing offense. The best example came last week when the Green Wave rolled to a 41-15 win at South Florida despite its quarterback, McMillan, attempting only 11 passes, four of them completed for 61 yards. This will be a matchup unlike ECU and defensive coordinator David Blackwell have seen all season.

3. Is the crowd a factor at all? All of the Pirates’ previous six games at Tulane were played in the New Orleans Superdome. This one will be on campus inside Tulane’s 30,000-seat Yulman Stadium that has mainly been about half-full for home games this fall. Today also will be Ahlers’ first-ever road start.

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

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