Football

Sophomore Holton Ahlers scrambles with the football against Temple University inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

No, the East Carolina University (4-8, 1-7 AAC) football team is not playing in a bowl game this year. By this time, that is a fact Pirate Nation has grown accustomed to but one they should not get used to feeling. Despite just a one-game improvement in the Pirates’ win-loss record from last season, much improvement has been made in the culture department in the first year under head coach Mike Houston.

Coupled with Houston’s culture shakeup, more focus on maintaining a balanced offense has been kept and can be accountable for at least some of the offense improvements made in the last half of the season.

While a 49-24 season-ending loss to the University of Tulsa (4-8, 2-6 AAC) will likely be quickly forgotten, the Pirates’ 29 rushing attempts ensured they would have at least that many in all 12 games during the season. A 1-5 record to that last half of the year aside, ECU capped off the 2019 campaign with 449 rushing attempts in a total of 900 plays. That number means the Pirates rushed the football on 49.9% of their plays this season, the highest such percentage since at least 2014.

For perspective, in that span, no Pirate team ran the ball more than 46.1% of the time. In contrast, the 2014 ECU team passed at 59.5% of their called plays, a more than nine percent increase over the 2019 number.

“Balanced doesn’t always mean you’re going to run it 50 times, throw it 50 times but it means you have the ability to do either one of them equally well,” offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said. “When you can do that, you can win on a consistent basis.”

While the Pirates experienced very little problems in the passing game, especially in the latter portions of the season, ECU rushers managed just 3.8 yards per carry and 141.3 yards per game. That last number ranked 93rd in the FBS as no Pirate cracked the top-200 in individual rushing yards.

Due in large part to a neck injury that sidelined junior running back Darius Pinnix Jr. for much of the season and the transfer of his backup, ECU relied heavily on the services of true freshman running back Demetrius Mauney.

Mauney, who topped 100 yards against Gardner-Webb University (3-9, 1-6 Big South) earlier in the season, found himself at the top of ECU’s rushing category with 446 yards with sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers hot on his heels at 359 yards and six touchdowns.

All told, the numbers bear out a very balanced run-pass attack for Kirkpatrick’s offense in 2019. Six games with more rushes than passes and just a two play difference (451 versus 449) after 12 games. If not for 48 pass plays in the season finale against Tulsa, the 2019 Pirates would have became the first ECU squad in the last 10 years to record more rushing than passing plays.

While they ultimately missed that mark, it’s evident the impact the run game had on Ahlers and the air attack. In five of the last six games, the Pirates rushed for over 100 yards while Ahlers topped 300 passing yards in the final four contests of the season.

No doubt keying on ECU’s ability to run the football effectively, opposing defenses often left favorable matchups on the outside for guys like freshman wide receiver C.J. Johnson and redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Snead to exploit.

Each with their respective huge game during the 2019 season, Johnson fell just short of becoming the ninth 1,000-yard receiver in program history since 2012. His 908 yards, however, did lead the team while Snead’s 66 catches paced the Pirates.

“I don’t know what the other teams are saying about us, but I got to think they would be saying, ‘If you stop C.J. here, the slot guy kills you. If you do that, the other guy can kill you. Wow, you spread too much out, they can run the ball,’” Kirkpatrick said. “That’s the goal, we would like to be able to do that and be balanced.”

In the passing game, there’s little doubt the Pirates experienced balance. Aside from Johnson and Snead, sophomore wide receiver Blake Proehl finished the season tied for second on the team in receptions with 54 while at the same time clocking in at third with 670 yards.

With that number, the trio of Johnson, Snead and Proehl represented just the third time since 2004 three ECU receivers topped 500 yards and just the second time three Pirate wide-outs finished the season with at least 600 receiving yards.

“I think it shows we got some balance in the offense,” Kirkpatrick said. “Really the ultimate goal of the offense is to almost be the equivalent of the wishbone where you do spread the ball around. We’re getting a lot of plays and all that. That’s also opening up the gate, obviously, to have more guys in there. When you have more guys that can touch it and make plays, you’re harder to defend.”

After overcoming a slow start to the season, Ahlers racked up at least 495 passing yards in two of the Pirates’ last four games, totaling 1,715 yards through the air over the final one-third of the season.

In total, the sophomore finished 14th in the country (prior to bowl games) in passing yards with 3,387. At the same time, Ahlers racked up the fourth-most passing yards for a single-season in program history as he continues to move up the career leaderboard.

Obviously, as Kirkpatrick says, without one phase or the other, you are not going to be successful. The Pirates’ record over the last three seasons bears that out, while a leaky defense similar to the one experienced in 2019 did not help, either.

With that being said, the final half of 2019 represented an offense Houston and his coaching staff would be happy to employ on a consistent basis. That includes a successful run game that ultimately forces teams into one-on-one matchups with receivers like Johnson and Snead.

As the relationship between Ahlers and his receivers and the two phases of the offense grew later in the season, little growth was experienced on defense. While the meshing of the offense, along with Houston’s shift in the locker room will be the big takeaways from 2019, it will be all for not if strides can not be taken on the defensive side of the football.

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