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WOODWARD: Mistakes magnified for rebuilding ECU

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N.C. State's Louis Acceus (2) celebrates as East Carolina sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers sits on the ground after being sacked during Saturday's game at Carter-Finley Stadium. The Wolfpack provided plenty of pressure on Ahlers and won 34-6.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Monday, September 2, 2019

RALEIGH

The sequence is easy to envision — East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers sheds the tackle attempt and powers the final few yards into the end zone for a Pirate touchdown Saturday, not long after a noon kickoff, at sold-out Carter-Finley Stadium.

ECU scores on its first offensive possession of the Mike Houston coaching era and holds a lead against favored N.C. State for as long as possible. Maybe even the entire game.

What really happened, however, was the helmet of Wolfpack defender Tanner Ingle had perfect placement on Ahlers’ left elbow and the football, creating a fumble recovered by the home team in the end zone on a play that turned out to be the most important of the game.

N.C. State cruised down the field for its first touchdown on the ensuing possession, and Ahlers, Houston and the Pirates never recovered. The Wolfpack won 34-6, which is proof of progress for ECU compared to the 58-3 rout in Raleigh of 2018.

In the current landscape of college football, one in which ECU is trying to recover from three straight 3-9 records and four consecutive losing seasons overall, all mistakes are magnified for the Pirates.

Ahlers also threw an interception during the first half for the second and final turnover of the afternoon, a blocking penalty wiped out a long kickoff return by Tyler Snead and Jake Verity missed a 52-yard field goal early in the second quarter when the score was 7-3.

N.C. State held a 17-3 lead at halftime, a score that was on the verge of being insurmountable.

Seventh-year Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren has the team that never wavered from a full level of confidence and was better equipped, mentally and physically, to withstand any up-and-down moments.

The Pirates can get to that point of comfort under Houston, a proven winner, but it will require teaching moments along the way.

Saturday showed that ECU is still in catch-up mode against its most formidable opponents.

N.C. State also started a sophomore quarterback, like Ahlers, and it served as the first-career start for Matt McKay.

But McKay, unlike Ahlers, was not needed to go win the game. He just had to not lose it.

He passed for 308 yards and accounted for three total touchdowns, without turning the ball over or being sacked.

McKay was far from simply a game-manager, however, as he showed glimpses of star power. The Raleigh native shook off some early misfires to settle in and connect on a few important long pass plays later in the game.

In the end, the mostly mistake-free Wolfpack scored its 14th straight victory in a game kicked off at noon or 12:30. That streak is as impressive as it is unique.

Houston said during his postgame news conference that the Wolfpack is talented enough for this to not be a rebuilding season after State went 9-4 in 2018.

The ECU job is a week-to-week rebuilding journey for Houston, and he will move forward with Ahlers and other eager players looking to create their own version of success and momentum while playing two Football Championship Subdivision teams during the next three weeks.

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

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