Holton Ahlers

Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers during ECU's loss to Navy.

The East Carolina University football team (1-2, 0-1 AAC) is 25% through its 2019 schedule. Following a 42-10 loss to the United State Naval Academy (2-0, 1-0 AAC) on Saturday, the Pirates have dropped both games against FBS opponents this season, picking up their lone victory against an FCS foe in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

Against Navy, ECU’s offense suffered long stretches where they looked out-of-sync. As a result, the Pirates finished the first half in a 28-3 hole with just 158 total yards of offense. Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers completed seven of his 14 passes passes for 93 yards while senior running Hussein Howe attempted to pick-up the slack for an injured Darius Pinnix Jr.

“Certainly, it is not ideal either, but that being said, you have to control what you can control,” head coach Mike Houston said via Stephen Igoe following the game. “He will be back at some point and we will see when, but in the meantime, we will get other players ready to go.”

The second half didn’t go much better for the Pirates as Navy’s senior quarterback Malcolm Perry finished the game with six total touchdowns and at least 150 yards through the air and on the ground.

“Congratulations to Navy. I thought they had a great plan on both sides of the ball and special teams,” Houston said via Stephen Igoe. “I thought their kids looked extremely prepared.”

Houston went on to say that it’s his responsibility to get his team ready each week and that will continue to be a point of emphasis as the Pirates move into this week.

Nevertheless, the Pirates have struggled in each of their first two road games this season, failing to produce anything of substance offensively while consistently getting burnt on defense.

In two contests against FBS opponents, Navy and North Carolina State University, the Pirates have gained 491 total yards on offense. The vast majority of that output has been through the air from the left shoulder of Ahlers. Across those two games, Ahlers has attempted 62 passes, completing 33 of them (53.2%) for 306 yards, two interceptions and zero touchdowns.

That equates to just 153 yards per contest for Ahlers in FBS affairs, while his completion percentage is roughly 10-12 points lower than would be preferred.

On the ground against top-tier opposition, the tale of the tape remains the same for the Pirates. In 58 combined rushing attempts from weeks one and three, an attack lead by Ahlers and Pinnix has racked up just 125 total yards. That is barely 60 yards per game and averages out to 2.2 yards per carry.

For perspective, in just one game at home this season, the Pirates racked up 574 yards of total offense, including 365 yards on the ground. That means, in half as many contests, ECU amassed 83 more yards on their home turf, a telling sign to its struggles against FBS teams on the road.

Defensively, the Pirates have been equally as lackluster. In the games against NCSU and Navy, ECU allowed 973 total yards of offense (486.5 average per game), including over 500 in the season opener inside Carter-Finley Stadium alone.

Better than 500 of those 973 yards have been on the ground as Perry led the Midshipmen to 315 rushing yards and four touchdowns on Saturday. In comparison, the Pirates yielded only 39 rushing yards and 186 total yards to Gardner-Webb University during week two in Greenville.

The offensive bombardment by FBS schools against ECU early this season has led to the Pirates being out-scored by 60 points in just two road games. NC State hung 34 points on the Pirates in Raleigh while the Midshipmen ran wild for 42 points this past Saturday. All told, the Pirates have allowed 76 points to FBS schools while scoring just 16 of their own.

While it would be easy to hang all the short-comings on ECU’s defensive unit, some blame is in store for Ahlers and the offensive play-calling. Entering Saturday, the Pirates’ passing attack ranked 119th out of 129 FBS schools in yards per pass completion at 9.7.

On Saturday, that average sat at 12.5 yards per completion against Navy’s defense. Take out a 41-yard catch-and-run by redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Snead, however, and that average once again drops to under 10 yards.

Playing on the road is tricky, especially in two unique environments like Raleigh and Annapolis. Nevertheless, the Pirates must find ways to win games on the road against tough competition if they wish to be successful in 2019 and in the future.

“There’s a lot of things we need to learn,” Houston said via Stephen Igoe. “When you have an older, experienced team that has confidence, you can go into a place like this (Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis) and have a shot to win. That’s what it’s going to take in a tough environment. We’ve got to be able to play well in environments like this.”

ECU has on its schedule additional tough games on the road against good opponents. They are slated to face the nationally ranked University of Central Florida on Oct. 19 and a solid Southern Methodist University squad in early November.

“The biggest thing we’ve got to focus on is ourselves,” Houston said via Stephen Igoe. “We’ve got to focus on correcting things that need to be corrected, and we’ve got to focus every day on getting better.”

The Pirates’ next game will be against the College of William and Mary (2-1, 0-0 CAA) inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville on Saturday with kickoff at 6 p.m.

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