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Pirates win big on senior night

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East Carolina's Colby Gore celebrates after making an interception during their game against Connecticut on Nov. 17, 2018. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers dazzled again, ensuring that East Carolina’s football seniors had their time to celebrate during senior day at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

ECU got its expected and much-needed win Saturday night, stopping a five-game losing streak with a 55-21 victory over a Connecticut team that remained winless in the American Athletic Conference and winless against FBS opponents this season. UConn fell to 1-10, while the Pirates (3-7, 1-6) picked up their first league win ahead of challenging road games against Cincinnati and N.C. State to complete a tough season.

Ahlers became the first ECU QB to rush for more than 100 yards in a game since David Garrard in 2000. He ran 12 times for 130 yards and a touchdown, and he also was 22-of-31 passing for 242 yards and four touchdowns.

Fellow freshman Tyler Snead, a surging walk-on slot receiver, was his favorite target with six receptions for 62 yards and three TDs.

The rookie connection helped make sure the seniors didn’t lose their final home game.

“I don’t think I could paint a better picture,” right tackle and senior offensive captain Garrett McGhin said. “It was kind of surreal just moving the ball like that and it felt amazing. I didn’t get caught up in it until the fourth quarter and somebody told me that I only have one more quarter left in Dowdy-Ficklen.

“It was awesome. One of the things that was really rewarding was seeing guys like Snead get three touchdowns and Holton Ahlers get his first career win, just to say I was part of stuff like that.”

ECU’s run game produced 415 yards on 54 carries versus the worst-ranked defense in the country. The total yards finished 657-274.

The Pirates trailed 7-0, 14-7 and 21-14 early in the night, but they used a flurry of 20 unanswered points during the second quarter to take control of the contest. It was 48-21 going into the final period.

“It has been about the seniors all week and really emotional last couple of days for our seniors and not only for me, but for some of our younger players,” Pirate coach Scottie Montgomery said. “It was the first game where we really played well together offensively, defensively and on special teams. I thought we adjusted in the second quarter a little bit defensively and once we got the lead, we really started to play well.

“Offensively it was probably our best performance of the year by far. I really liked some of the innovation in our run game and we showed a lot of new looks.”

Senior reserve running back Anthony Scott put ECU in the lead for good, 28-21, on a 5-yard TD with 2:03 until halftime. Two Jake Verity field goals made it 34-21 at the break.

Scott (six carries, 67 yards) also had one rushing touchdown against North Carolina and Old Dominion, which are ECU’s other two wins.

Senior defensive end Nate Harvey brought down three sacks to continue his banner campaign. He broke the American Athletic Conference single-season record for tackles for loss, formerly held by Houston’s Ed Oliver, when he reached 24 TFLs for the year during the second half.

“Coach just told me and it feels good,” Harvey said. “But I’m just glad I could help my team in any way possible and glad it was this way (in a win).”

The Pirate defense forced three turnovers, including Harvey’s strip-sack and fumble recovery of his own. Freshman Damel Hickman’s interception ended the game.

Trevon Brown caught one of Ahlers’ touchdown passes and hit the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the second straight year.

The Pirates honored Brown, Harvey, Scott and 16 others before the game, then started six seniors on defense.

But defense was mainly an afterthought, for both teams, during a high-scoring opening quarter filled with quarterback highlights.

Ahlers had a 25-yard run and an even longer dash early in the second, when he spun and juked his way up the field for 38 yards to set up a 24-yard touchdown pass to Snead for a 14-14 tie. Snead also caught a touchdown from Ahlers on the Pirates’ first offensive series.

UConn took a 21-14 edge on David Pindell’s third TD toss of the game with 11:16 until halftime. The Huskies were shut out the rest of the way.

Pindell finished 15-of-25 for 156 yards, and was held to 3 rush yards to stop a string of four straight 100-yard rushing outings. He had 184 rushing yards last week.

ECU responded immediately from the 21-14 deficit, this time with Ahlers finding little-used tight end Xavier Smith for a few clutch pass plays on a drive before the QB went over the top of a defender and into the end zone for a 2-yard TD run and 21-21 deadlock. That was the final tie of the game.

“He has the Superman in him, no question, and sometimes he pulls out that cape out,” Montgomery said of his QB’s flip into the end zone.

Ahlers and Trace Christian (13 carries, 102 yards) each rushed for more than 100 yards.

The announced attendance was a season-low 27,234.

“We’re going to get those fans back and start winning here,” Ahlers said. “They deserve it and this town and this program and these coaches deserve it.”

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

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