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Pirates win, celebrate a road game

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East Carolina tight end Anthony Watley (80) dives in the end zone for a touchdown during the fourth quarter at S.B. Ballard Stadium on Saturday night in Norfolk, Va.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, September 28, 2019

NORFOLK, Va. — East Carolina football won 24-21 at Old Dominion on Saturday for a 3-2 record this season and three wins in three games all time against the Monarchs.

The most important note, however, was that ECU is now 1-2 in road games this year.

ECU’s victory, which featured the visitors turning the ball over three times, blocking a punt for a touchdown and creating three takeaways of their own, stopped a 10-game road losing streak and was its first win away from Greenville since defeating Connecticut 41-38 on Sept. 24, 2017. It also was the Pirates’ first road nonconference victory since Sept. 13, 2014, against Virginia Tech.

ECU recovered an onside kick with 2:08 remaining and ran out the clock, capped by three kneel downs by quarterback Holton Ahlers.

Then it was celebration time for the Pirates, who finished 3-9 in 2016, '17 and '18, in the visiting locker room at S.B. Ballard Stadium.

“That locker room in there, I haven’t experienced that at ECU with the feeling we just had in there,” said Ahlers, a sophomore Greenville native who finished 8-for-21 for 202 yards, two interceptions and two touchdowns, one a 72-yarder to Blake Proehl for a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter. "That was a gutsy performance by our whole team."

ECU, which quickly returns to American Athletic Conference play when it hosts Temple on Thursday night on ESPN, came in with a 1-17 record in its last 18 road games.

“We have momentum, though, and it’s going to be a short week, but we can’t wait to play,” Proehl said.

The Pirates took control early against the Monarchs (1-3), turning a 3-3 tie during the first quarter into 17-3 advantage at the 12:21 mark of the second and the score that stayed that way until a Monarch touchdown with 12:17 remaining in the third. It was 17-13 Pirates going into the fourth, and a shovel pass TD to tight end Anthony Watley created a 24-13 cushion with 10:36 remaining.

The Pirates were aggressive early on offense and special teams, beginning with the first play of the game as a 53-yard Ahlers pass to Deondre Farrier streaking down the middle of the field. Farrier finished with two catches for 61 yards.

Proehl caught his 72-yard touchdown on a similar “go route” play, leaping for the catch over a defender and shunning him to run about 30 more yards to the end zone to create the important 17-3 lead.

Proehl had an even 100 yards on two catches as the game’s leading receiver.

Ahlers was 5-of-13 for 148 yards in the first half with one touchdown and one interception. He was 0-for-4 during the third quarter with an INT, then rebounded by completing 3-of-4 passes for 54 yards and a TD in the final quarter.

ODU quarterback Stone Smartt ran the ball 22 times for a game-high 76 yards and a touchdown, but the rest of the Monarchs were limited to 14 yards on 20 carries. ECU’s defense was led by relentless and speedy Kendall Futrell and his three sacks and seven total tackles.

“We did what we had to do to put it away in the fourth quarter,” Pirate first-year coach Mike Houston said. “We had great defense late. … We ran into some problems with (Smartt) scrambling and he’s a pretty good player now, but just what a gutsy effort.”

Stone was 20-for-30 passing for 203 yards and two interceptions, one by Gerard Stringer and the other by JaQuan McMillian. ECU's Chance Purvis had one sack.

Reserve defensive back Warren Saba staked the Pirates to a 10-3 first-quarter lead and gave ECU its first special teams touchdown since 2015 at BYU. He broke through the ODU line, blocked a punt and immediately scooped the ball and trotted into the end zone for a 4-yard TD at the 3:06 mark.

“We practiced it during the week and we got the same look today,” Saba said. “I wasn’t blocking it at all during practice, but coach trusted me to go and it was game time. I had to go do what I had to do.”

Earlier in the quarter was a big play by Ahlers to Farrier to get the visitors out of an inauspicious spot of receiving the opening kickoff at the 1-yard line and then a delay of game moved the ball inside the 1.

It was a similar position to what ECU faced two weeks ago at Navy, during an eventual 42-10 defeat, but this time Ahlers rolled to his left and lofted a deep pass to Farrier for 53 critical yards. Jake Verity, the kicker who also handled most of the punting because punter Jonn Young got hit and went down during the first half, made a 29-yard field to cap the drive.

Trailing 17-3, ODU received the kickoff after halftime and went three-and-out, but a muffed punt gave the Monarchs the ball at the Pirate 36-yard line. A late-hit personal foul on Colby Gore helped the Old Dominion offense, which cashed in a 5-yard run by Smartt to cut the deficit to 17-10.

The Monarchs didn't score a touchdown again until 2:13 left in the game. A successful 2-point conversion made it 24-21.

It was 10-3 Pirates at the end of the first quarter. The Monarchs came into the game outscoring their opponents 27-10 during the first quarter this year.

"You have to play with emotion and I want our kids to go play with emotion, and they did," Houston said. "One thing you can't say about our kids is that they don't play hard. They played their butts off tonight."

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

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