Confidence. Despite a lackluster record with only two games left in the season, the East Carolina University (3-7, 0-6 AAC) football team is filled to the brim with that often elusive feeling.
While confidence would have been hard to come by for the Pirates after a 45-20 homecoming loss to the University of South Florida (4-5, 2-3 AAC) three weeks ago, two games of stellar offensive play has followed, boosting spirits around the team.
“Well it’s no comparison. There’s so many things, and it’s the frustrating thing with our record is that there’s so many things that are just night and day different with our players,” head coach Mike Houston said. “It’s really a credit to them, they’ve done such a good job of investing in the process and really believing and coming and putting in the work each day and you’re really starting to see that tangible evidence with the way we play on game day.”
From just 269 total yards of offensive against North Carolina State University (4-5, 1-4 AAC) to open the season, ECU has seemingly grown with each game, taking steps forward in multiple phases of its performance on the field.
As any football team does the Pirates’ offense flows through its quarterback, sophomore Holton Ahlers. A true freshman last year, Ahlers was subjected to working with his second offensive coordinator and head coach in as many years following a 3-9 season in 2018.
While it’s often easy to be critical of a team and player, Ahlers’ performance over the last two weeks has proven an ability to sling the football has always existed in the quarterback’s left arm. Through the first six games of the season, however, that ability was overshadowed by bad decision-making and a lack of consistent offensive production from the Pirates.
In those first six games, Ahlers tossed six touchdowns but threw five interceptions, never cracking the 250-yard mark through the air. With more of a rush-focused head coach, it often seemed like Ahlers struggled to make the right decisions in the RPO game.
“I think he (Ahlers) is very comfortable in the scheme right now,” Houston said. “He’s not making nearly the number of mistakes that he was making a month and a half ago. I think he just feels a lot more confident and you can see it with the decisiveness in the way he’s making decisions and delivering the football.”
That decisiveness is showing up, not only on the field, but also on the statistics sheet. Against the University of Central Florida (7-3, 4-2 AAC) four weeks ago, Ahlers broke his season-high (at that time) in passing yards by stringing together a 23-for-37 effort for 313 yards and a touchdown in ECU’s loss to the Knights.
Two games later, after a step back by the sophomore, Ahlers was breaking passing records with the help of freshman wide receiver C.J. Johnson against the University of Cincinnati (8-1, 5-0 AAC). On a career day, Ahlers set a school-record with 535 passing yards on 32 completions. Johnson, who caught one of Ahlers’ four touchdowns on the evening, hauled in 12 passes for 283 yards to break Trevon Brown’s school- and conference-record for receiving yards in a game.
While multiple balls were placed in a favorable position for Johnson to catch, the true freshman also made a handful of nifty catches, including a 75-yard touchdown grab on the Pirates’ first possession of the game.
“I think it’s especially encouraging to see just the way that group of receivers has kind of meshed with our quarterback,” Houston said.
For a one game sample size, the effort against Cincinnati was impressive. On a mission to make everyone believe it was not a fluke, Ahlers racked up 498 additional passing yards, this time against Southern Methodist University (9-1, 5-1 AAC) in Dallas, Texas. Ranked as the No. 23 team in the country at the time, Ahlers broke another school-record by passing for six touchdowns in the Pirates’ 59-51 loss to the Mustangs.
On the receiving end of three of those touchdowns was redshirt freshman Tyler Snead. With Johnson out of the game after sustaining an injury, Snead became ECU’s primary pass-catcher on the evening, hauling in 19 receptions for 240 yards to set an FBS-record for catches in a game this season.
“Tyler’s been solid for us all year and he’s certainly a guy that we felt like was going to be a solid contributor coming into the season,” Houston said. “You look at the game, you look at the plays he made, he’s always a reliable guy, he’s always able to find those windows.”
Without a combination of things coming together for the Pirates, neither Johnson’s or Snead’s performances would have been possible. Steps forward have been taken by the offensive line as a whole despite injuries, while Ahlers, as Houston alluded to, has settled down within the new offensive scheme.
It has taken 10 games and seven losses for ECU’s football program to finally round something of a corner in its rebuild. Two losses to nationally ranked opponents by a combined total of 11 points fueled by 1,033 passing yards by Ahlers has supplanted the Pirates back on the national radar as the season draws to a close.
“I got a message from another national guy that I’m associated with and just, people are noticing,” Houston said. “Again, we want to get the notches in the left-hand column, that’s the goal. But I think everybody is noticing the improvement that our program is making. I think the coaches around the league are seeing it. I think that anybody that’s paying any attention has to be encouraged by it. We’re excited about the improvement we’ve made.”
Ranked 11th in the FBS with over 2,700 passing yards, Ahlers’ newfound confidence within Houston’s offense is allowing the Pirates to hang with teams like they were unable to do early in the season. Johnson is 45th in the nation with 682 receiving yards despite missing the vast majority of the SMU game with an injury.
Snead, with his 1,004 all-purpose yards, ranks 98th in the FBS with over 100 per contest in 2019 and took home American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week following his performance against SMU.
While ECU will miss out on a bowl game yet again, those days are quickly grinding to a halt as Houston and his coaching staff are slowly but surely turning the program around. As Houston talked about, that would have been impossible unless the players bought into his philosophy at the beginning of the season.
Now, with some good games under their belts and the emergence of multiple weapons within the offense, the Pirates are free to attack the final two games on the schedule in an effort to build momentum for 2020, something that begins with a hunt for a fourth win.
The Pirates will attempt to win their fourth game of the season, a feat they have not accomplished since 2015, when they face the University of Connecticut (2-8, 0-6 AAC) on Nov. 23. Kickoff between the Huskies and Pirates is scheduled for noon in East Hartford.