For the second straight week, the East Carolina University (3-7, 0-6 AAC) football team went toe-to-toe with a nationally ranked opponent. In as many weeks, however, the Pirates lost to those teams, this time Southern Methodist University (9-1, 5-1 AAC), by one score after dropping Saturday’s contest to the Mustangs 59-51.
“It’s coming,” sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers said via Ronnie Woodward of The Daily Reflector. “Obviously we see it, because that is two ranked teams in the country that we (played) down to the last possession. We just have to get over the hump. We are good enough to win these games now and we believe that, we just have to figure out how to get over it.”
It started out with two three-and-outs by ECU’s offense, but Saturday’s contest in Dallas, Texas was anything but a defensive showcase, for both teams involved. On one side, you had a team that had been racking up points all season in nationally ranked SMU. Entering the contest, the Mustangs ranked seventh in the nation by scoring 43.6 points per game on average, while at the same time amassing nearly 510 yards per contest.
On the other side, the Pirates of ECU stepped off the bus sporting the 46th-best passing offense in the nation (254 yards per game), one that managed just over 30 points every time out.
After a somewhat shaky start to the season by Ahlers and the Pirates’ offensive unit, a record-setting night last Saturday in Greenville showcased what ECU could do.
Over 500 passing yards from Ahlers busted a school-record while freshman wide receiver C.J. Johnson also broke a school- and conference-record with 283 receiving yards on 12 catches. In all, ECU racked up 638 yards of total offense in its 46-43 loss at the hands of the University of Cincinnati (8-1, 5-0 AAC) on a last second field goal.
Tasked with taking their tough matchup on the road, the Pirates landed in Texas knowing the Mustangs liked to give up yards. Despite sporting the third-best defensive unit in tackles for loss in the FBS, SMU had yielded nearly 280 passing yards to its first nine opponents of the season. That mark ranked 119th out of 130 FBS teams and countered a high-flying offense that led the Mustangs to their best start to a season since 1983.
With junior wide receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. and senior wide receiver Myron Gailliard out with injuries for the Mustangs, junior graduate transfer quarterback Shane Buechele would need to lean on players deeper in the depth chart.
Conversely, Ahlers and the Pirates played much of Saturday’s contest without Johnson who exited early in the contest with an undisclosed injury after only one target and zero catches.
Despite the loss of some offensive weapons for both teams, 110 combined points would be scored and 1,280 yards of offense would be amassed before the conclusion of the contest.
Buechele opened the scoring for either side with a 22-yard strike to junior tight end Kylen Granson, capping an eight-play, 75 yard drive after the Mustangs took the opening kickoff.
The Pirates, who went three-and-out on their first two offensive drives, did not fold following SMU’s 2:16 drive down the field, but instead responded by picking off Buechele and forcing a Mustang punt one drive later.
At the end of one quarter, the Pirates were trailing 14-7 and were sitting on negative-11 yards on the ground. Ahlers, however, was 4-of-7 for 98 yards after a 68-yard hook-up with freshman wide receiver Jsi Hatfield that represented the Pirates’ first score of the game.
Mid-way through the second quarter, it looked like the Mustangs were taking control over ECU. A three-yard rushing touchdown from senior running back Xavier Jones and a 51-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver James Proche opened up a 28-10 SMU advantage.
Quit the Pirates did not. Instead, they battled back on the left arm of their quarterback who found redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Snead over the top of SMU’s defense for a 36-yard touchdown pass, making the score 28-17.
With a 37-yard field goal from junior kicker Jake Verity to close the half, the Pirates entered the locker room down only eight points at 28-20 and were set to receive the second half kickoff.
Three plays after that kickoff, the Pirates found themselves down only one point following a 45-yard touchdown pass from Ahlers to sophomore tight end Zech Byrd. A bobble by Byrd nearly botched the entire play, but the 6-7 tight end was able to regain control and find the end zone.
Byrd’s touchdown, while no one knew it at the time, would begin a second half that saw zero punts from either team and a combined 62 points of offense.
At the center of that attack for ECU was Snead. Without Johnson, Snead became Ahlers’ No. 1 target, catching 19 passes on the evening for 240 yards and three touchdowns. Just four catches shy of an ECU school-record, Snead did his best Johnson impression from a week ago and nearly rebroke an AAC record for most receiving yards in a game.
“He (Ahlers) was putting it on me right there,” Snead said via Woodward. “It made my job easier, I just had to catch it and run. Definitely gave me more confidence, but he just found me, we were on the same page today. It worked out well.”
For SMU, Granson followed up his two touchdown first quarter by catching a vital 31-yard scoring pass late in the fourth quarter on a fourth and 20 play that put SMU up 52-44.
A penalty and a sack backed the Mustangs into a possible punting situation, but, like they did all game, SMU elected to go for it on fourth down and were rewarded with excellent results.
“We’re in man free (coverage),” head coach Mike Houston said via Stephen Igoe of 247sports.com. “We’ve got a post safety. He should be sitting right there in the middle of the field. Should have tight man coverage underneath. If you ask me what the best defense you can call against the play they ran, that was it. Got to make the play. No excuse.”
In the second half on Saturday, the only stop either defense got was when each team held the other to a field goal instead of a touchdown. Those stops came in the third quarter as both teams scored four second half touchdowns.
Following Granson’s aforementioned 31-yard touchdown catch, the turning point of the game finally happened. Having already muffed one fair-catch on a kickoff earlier in the ball game, Snead and Hatfield were both back deep for SMU’s kickoff. Trailing by eight in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, ECU’s ensuing drive would have been perhaps its most important of the game.
Instead, Snead and Hatfield, two freshmen with minimal experience prior to this season, came together on the kickoff, fumbling the ball and allowing SMU to take-over at ECU’s 22-yard line.
The play, which directly resulted in the Mustangs taking a 59-44 lead with 4:18 left in the contest, looked to be a straight miscommunication by both players, one that likely cost the Pirates a shot at the upset.
“You have to do a great job of communication and call it loud,” Houston said via Woodward. “We work that stuff all the time and it’s really frustrating that happened, but I promise you nobody feels worse that those two kids. Snead had 240 yards receiving, and he feels like absolute dog crap right now. I could see it in his eyes in that locker room.”
Even down two touchdowns, however, Ahlers and the ECU offense fought until the final whistle. With their last offensive drive, the Pirates punched the ball into the end zone on the back of a 22-yard catch by graduate transfer wide receiver Audie Omotosho, giving him his first touchdown with ECU.
Still with over two minutes left in the game and timeouts to burn, ECU had a chance to get the ball back despite an unsuccessful on-side kick. On fourth and three with under one minutes left, however, Buechele found Proche on a four-yard slant for a first down, ending the Pirates’ dream for an upset.
As the final seconds ticked off the boards, what ECU’s offense had done could not be ignored. Sure, the Pirates’ defense gave up 636 total yards, but Ahlers and company countered with 644 of their own, 498 of which came through the air.
Just one week after setting a school-record with 638 yards of offense against the Bearcats, the Pirates’ rebroke that record while Ahlers passed for a school-record six touchdowns on Saturday.
With 498 passing yards on a 32-of-42 performance, Ahlers was just 37 yards shy of beating his passing effort from a week ago, one that also set an ECU record for most passing yards in a game.
For the second straight week, ECU’s offense looked like one of the best in the FBS. Unfortunately, timely mistakes continued to hamper the Pirates at the end of games. Last week, it was Ahlers’ interception that was returned for a touchdown to give the Bearcats a late lead. This week, against the Mustangs, the mis-handled kickoff and SMU’s perfect effort on fourth down (5-of-5) ultimately spelled doom for ECU.
“I know how they’re coached,” Houston said via Igoe. “The scheme is sound. We’ve got to make the play. It’s not like they can’t. So we’ve got to get those mistakes corrected and we’ve got to make the plays.”
Sitting at 3-7 on the season, the Pirates will be back in action on Nov. 23 against the University of Connecticut (2-8, 0-6 AAC) following a bye week. A kickoff time between the Huskies and Pirates has yet to be announced.