Tuesday’s East Carolina football news conference served as another opportunity for head coach Mike Houston, and later senior defensive back Warren Saba, to support quarterback Holton Ahlers and voice how Ahlers gives the Pirates their best chance to win games.
ECU has yet to win this year, dropping to 0-2 after Saturday’s 20-17 home loss to South Carolina. An Ahlers’ 3-yard touchdown run gave the Pirates a 14-0 edge with 11:53 until halftime, but the fourth-year junior signal-caller ended the day with 11-of-24 passing for 77 yards, two interceptions and he was sacked five times. Some fans want to see more of second-year freshman backup Mason Garcia, who hasn’t made a game appearance since Nov. 13, 2020, at Cincinnati.
“You had an experienced quarterback in a challenging game against a very talented defense out there on the field,” Houston said. “Obviously, we are continuing to develop Mason. There will be a day when he is the starting quarterback here or there might be situations where he plays this year, but I just think you have to be careful with that because you want to make sure you take advantage of every possession. I think Holton right now gives us the best chance to win. ... I’ve seen him make some really good throws, and the frustrating thing of some of the throws that he put on the money (was) that we didn’t come up with the catch on Saturday.
“I’ve seen some situations where he just needs to have more discipline with his decision-making. (Offensive coordinator) Donnie (Kirkpatrick) points it out to him on film, but it’s not everything on him.”
Houston, whose team plays at Marshall (2-0) on Saturday at 6 p.m. for more nonconference action, also pointed out the significance of Ahlers’ first INT as a momentum-changing play for the Gamecocks in the final minute of the second quarter. SC linemen rushed hard to Ahlers on a middle screen pass, forcing him to throw a quick strike, and the ball bounced off running back Rahjai Harris’ shoulder pad and into the waiting arms of linebacker Damani Staley, who sped 63 yards to the end zone. ECU led 14-7 at halftime.
The play was one of the examples of South Carolina’s quality speed on defense, which Houston also emphasized Tuesday.
“We put ourselves in position to win it, but we had opportunities, I thought, to put the game away right before the half,” he said. “Obviously, the interception return for a touchdown was a big momentum swing in that ball game. We fought back and got back in control in the fourth quarter. It was a good drive (by South Carolina) to end it and a pretty clutch kick (for the winning field goal), so we’re disappointed in the loss. Our focus is completely on Marshall and a very good Marshall team right now.”
Ahlers’ 27 career starts is the most among current Pirate players.
After halftime, ECU’s five offensive possessions resulted in four punts and an Owen Daffer 26-yard field goal, which made it 17-14 ECU. The Gamecocks’ lone offensive TD was on their final drive of third quarter, and their two possessions in the fourth each ended with a Parker White field goal.
SC had minus-18 rushing yards in the opening half. The final rushing totals were 111-109 in favor of the Pirates.
“They were bringing a lot of movement and a lot of pressure, but the big thing we did is we came in at halftime and I told (offensive coordinator) Marcus Satterfield, if we are going down then we are going down handing that ball to Zaquandre White, MarShawn Lloyd, Kevin Harris and Juju McDowell,” Gamecock coach Shane Beamer said Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. “The running backs were going to get the football. ... We did feel like we had a depth advantage. If we could just keep playing and keep running the ball and wearing them down and wearing them down, then we could be able to get this thing into the fourth quarter and win it.”
Freshman lineman Xavier McIver (6-foot-1, 312 pounds and a Cheraw, S.C., native) was instrumental in ECU’s run defense, especially in the first half, along with linebackers Xavier Smith, Jeremy Lewis and others. Lewis finished with 1.5 tackles for loss, and McIver was a first-time starter following an unexpected foot injury at last Tuesday’s practice to nose guard Elijah Morris.
“(Morris) is a tough kid, and the athletic (training) staff said there was no way and by the end of the week, we did dress him, but it was a concern going into that game just of turning what was a minor injury into something significant because of the position he plays and the physicality at that position,” Houston said. “The other guys played very well, so that gave us the ability to give him a little more time. He should be full-go this week.”