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PIRATE GAMEDAY: ECU treks to Raleigh for season finale

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QB Holton Ahlers

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, December 1, 2018

A season-ending game that wasn’t on East Carolina’s football schedule until early-October happens today with a trip to Raleigh to face rival N.C. State without Scottie Montgomery as the Pirates’ head coach.

Defensive coordinator David Blackwell will lead the Pirates (3-8), two days after Montgomery was ousted for him to finish with a 9-26 record in three seasons.

The move provided clarity for the future of the ECU program, but for today, a big question remains about the availability of Pirate freshman starting quarterback Holton Ahlers. He has been limited in practice this week with lingering right knee and hand issues.

Reid Herring is ready to quarterback ECU if Ahlers is not available to play.

“We in no way shape or form will put him in harm’s way,” Blackwell said. “If he is ready to play then he will play, and if he is not ready to play then he won’t play.”

Today’s game was made possible after East Carolina and N.C. State both had Sept. 15 matchups cancelled because of Hurricane Florence. Hurricane relief efforts played a part in scheduling the game at Carter-Finley Stadium.

Regardless of the outcome for ECU, this will complete a fourth straight losing season for the Pirates. ECU finished 3-9 and 2016 and ‘17 under Montgomery, whose dismissal was part of an emotional final few days of the season for coaches and players.

Montgomery had faced questions all week about his job status until the announcement by Chancellor Cecil Staton came Thursday early afternoon.

“We just have to deal with this as best as we can. There is not a blueprint for this,” Blackwell said.

The Pirates are 8-4 versus N.C. State in the last 12 meetings, but NCSU (8-3) is a favorite of more than three touchdowns for today.

ECU had five turnovers in a 56-6 loss at Cincinnati a week ago, including a costly fumble by Ahlers and two interceptions by him along with a pick-six INT thrown by Herring during the second half. Ahlers did not finish the game, and Herring is in line to start today if Ahlers indeed is inactive.

Ahlers needs 41 rushing yards versus the Wolfpack, which ranks 16th in the country in rushing defense, to pass Leander Green and his 632 ground yards in 1979 for the most ever by an ECU quarterback in a season.

The left-hander is ECU’s leading rusher, and he has a 12-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has passed for 1,785 yards, but he completed less than half of his pass attempts for a 48.3 completion percentage. Herring has six touchdowns and nine INTs this year.

While Ahlers and others have years remaining in their collegiate careers, the Pirates have nearly 20 seniors looking to surprise a lot of people with a season-ending win over NCSU.

ECU defensive end Nate Harvey leads the nation with 24 tackles for loss. His 13.5 sacks rank third. He is planning to seek one more year of eligibility through a medical redshirt dating back to his career at Georgia Military College before transferring to ECU in the spring of 2017.

Harvey was named American Athletic Conference defensive player of the year earlier this week.

Trevon Brown is looking for one final highlight of an afternoon as one of the Pirates’ all-time great pass-catchers. The Wilmington native is sixth among active FBS receivers in career reception yards (2,904) and touchdowns (24).

Cincinnati held Brown to three catches for 45 yards without a touchdown, marking the first time Brown didn’t find the end zone since a 49-6 loss at Temple on Oct. 6. The Pirates’ only TD a week ago was a 71-yard pass from Ahlers to Mydreon Vines for Vines’ first-career touchdown.

“It’s unbelievable how far I have come and going into this last game, I just want to get into the end zone one last time,” Brown said. “I want to end my career off on a good note.”

At least some motivation for NCSU comes from a loss to the Pirates in 2016, part of Montgomery starting his career with two wins before a costly 1-12 record in the next 13 games.

N.C. State coach Dave Doeren is 0-2 versus East Carolina, losing in 2013 and ‘16. He said during his weekly news conference that upperclassmen players have led the discussions about remembering the 33-30 defeat to the Pirates in Greenville on Sept. 10, 2016.

“The fact that we didn’t play well there last time I think resonates with our guys, but that is not how we’ll win the game because that is just a conversation,” Doeren said. “We need to not beat ourselves. That’s really what we did down there last time, because we had (eight) penalties and a bunch of turnovers and just didn’t play good football.

“The last two weeks, we have been a lot better in those areas. We need to build on that.”

State leads the all-time series 16-13.

This Wolfpack team features one of the most experienced and steady quarterbacks in the country in Ryan Finley, who has passed for 21 touchdowns and is averaging 307.3 yards per outing as a senior. His favorite target is a 6-foot-3, 214-pound receiver Kelvin Harmon and his six touchdowns and 1,119 yards.

Harmon is a junior, but he already participated in NCSU’s senior day festivities and might skip his final collegiate season to enter the NFL draft.

ECU will look to counter with a secondary featuring senior starters Devon Sutton, Corey Seargent and Marcus Holton Jr. Sutton has three sacks, four pass breakups and is the team’s leading tackler with 74 total stops.

The Wolfpack rushed for 206 yards a week ago in an overtime win against rival North Carolina, mostly coming from 129 yards and five touchdowns by 235-pounder Reggie Gallaspy.

“Everything that we have endured as a family and a brotherhood and team and one unit, we get to go through one more time Saturday,” Pirate senior linebacker and defensive captain Cannon Gibbs said. “That will be it for a lot of people. It will be the last game they get to play, so we have to give it our all and we will go in there and just fight until the clock hits zero.”

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Does Holton Ahlers play? No doubt the biggest question for East Carolina is the availability of freshman starting quarterback Holton Ahlers. If he does play, his mobility will be a key. If Ahlers is inactive, all eyes will be on Reid Herring and any offensive changes for his first start since Oct. 13. Freshman receiver Tyler Snead also might not play, which would allow for him to redshirt this year.

2. Can ECU get to Finley? N.C. State’s offense will be without both of its starting tackles — Tyler Jones and Justin Whitt — for one half because of suspensions. Those positions are vital in protecting quarterback Ryan Finley. Pirate defensive ends Nate Harvey, Kendall Futrell and others could have a big impact on the game if they take advantage against what will be a shorthanded NCSU O-line at times.

3. What is the Wolfpack’s longest play? Long touchdowns have burned the East Carolina defense during the second half of the season, which was notable early in the game against Cincinnati as the Bearcats built a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. N.C. State has big-time star power, led by receiver Kelvin Harmon.

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

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