When Holton Ahlers is East Carolina’s starting quarterback for his team’s season finale this Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium versus Tulsa, ECU will have started the same QB all season for the first time since Shane Carden in 2014.
Ahlers, a sophomore Greenville native, is flourishing in November to aid in Pirate fans’ hopes for the future. Still an underclassman already with 16 career starts, Ahlers has a clear and potentially valuable path to longevity as the Pirates’ top signal-caller and leader on offense for two more years.
He sits eighth on the ECU career passing yards list with 4,864 yards, on the verge of passing Jeff Blake (5,133) for seventh. Carden is No. 1 with 11,991 from 2011-14.
“At any level anywhere in this sport, if you don’t have consistency at that position, then you are not going to be very good,” Pirate first-year coach Mike Houston said Monday during the American Athletic Conference coaches teleconference of Ahlers, who was named to the league honor roll for his 374 yards on 34-of-50 passing Saturday against Connecticut. “It is critical, and the fact that we’ve had that consistency this year is important, but I also think for our program, the fact that we have that consistency not only right now but moving forward is pivotal.
“I am extremely pleased with the progress Holton has made this year. With his play this month, it’s a glimpse of the potential he has and our team has.”
A fourth-quarter sequence in the 31-24 win for ECU (4-7, 1-6 American) at UConn was particularly important for ECU’s 6-foot-3, 235-pound left-handed QB.
His interception on a short outside pass to C.J. Johnson resembled the pick-6 by Cincinnati at Dowdy-Ficklen on Nov. 2, during a record-setting passing night by Ahlers in which Cincy’s interception return TD played a huge role in the Bearcats’ 18-point fourth quarter as they rallied for a 46-43 win.
The INT versus UConn came with the score tied 24-24 and about 8 minutes remaining. The Huskies punted on the ensuing possession, then Ahlers engineered ECU’s game-winning march that spanned 68 yards on nine plays. He was 2-for-3 passing on the drive and ran for 17 yards, most notably the go-ahead, 2-yard touchdown run at the 3:28 mark.
“Anytime you are a quarterback, you have to be able to forget a play, whether it is good or bad,” Ahlers said of the INT by UConn’s Keyshawn Paul, who stepped in front of Johnson and caught the ball in stride near midfield. “I knew that my team was going to need me. I was going to do whatever I had to do to win this ball game. That is what we did.”
Ahlers will head into the Tulsa contest on the heels of a three-game stretch of 1,407 combined passing yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.
“Certainly as an individual, he understands that is a result of the improvement of our team,” Houston said. “Just that attitude at that position is so critical.”
Ahlers has 3,079 passing yards this year. Carden finished with 3,116 in 2012 as a sophomore.
ECU’s postgame celebration Saturday afternoon included Colby Gore leading the ECU fight song and running back Darius Pinnix singing as he sat on top of his locker.
But it also was hard not to notice offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick surrounded by players and dancing in the video posted on Twitter by the official ECU Football account. Houston said Kirkpatrick’s dancing was spur of the moment, but also was real emotion.
“When you look at those videos, one thing about it is there is nothing in that moment that is fake,” Houston said. “You see the way the players celebrate with each other and the way they celebrate with their coaches, that is so hard to create and I can promise you that was not here Dec. 3. The players have worked so hard to create that atmosphere in our locker room, and it’s just not on game day when we win. We have a really good locker room right now.”