The good news for ECU Pirate fans is that Mike Houston’s Pirates looked a lot better against in-state rival NC State than the Pirates who lost 58-3 to the Wolfpack last December. The bad news is that it all ended similarly anyway, as ECU lost 34-6 to State in Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday.
Let’s start with the good news. Houston’s Pirates played pretty well on defense on Saturday, easily evidenced by the fact they allowed 24 fewer points than last time. Three players all recorded eight tackles, including defensive end Kendall Futrell, who lived up to the preseason hype and played great on the line. So did Alex Turner, who had seven tackles including one for loss.
The Wolfpack ranked 11th in the nation in third-down conversion percentage last season, per the ACC Network broadcasters but were limited to just 4-for-12 on third downs in this one. That number is worse than it looks, being buffed up by a 3-for-4 performance on third down in the fourth quarter alone when the game was already out of the Pirates reach.
Quarterback Holton Ahlers went 22-for-39 in the game, and that 56 percent mark is an improvement on last season’s 48 percent so far. The short-to-intermediate range passes worked great for ECU and allowed them to work down the field almost 70 yards to open the game and almost score first.
On special teams, ECU actually got return yardage from Tyler Snead on both kickoffs and punts. Snead brought back a punt for 12 yards and three kicks for 72 yards (24 yards per return). He also made fair catches when the situation was appropriate. That’s a big improvement over last season when the Pirates barely got any returns even with Trevon Brown as the returner.
Then there’s the bad news. They kept the Wolfpack from breaking out as much this time, State scored more methodically this time around (seven in first and third quarters, 10 in second and fourth quarters each). Still, at the end of the game, State had 191 rushing yards and Matt McKay threw for over 300 yards in his first start.
The Pirate defense still couldn’t force any turnovers, which has been a problem for their defense in years past. The Wolfpack fumbled the ball twice and the Pirates were unable to recover either one of them. That makes a big difference when ECU also fumbled twice but State recovered one.
NC State instead capitalized on ECU’s mistakes. Ahlers threw an interception just a few plays after another interception was called back due to penalty. His fumble near the goal line at the beginning of the game was something he admitted changed the momentum in the game and possibly how it all unfolded.
The offense was still unable to generate any rushing attack at all. Darius Pinnix was the leading rusher with 23 yards on 11 attempts. That’s only because Ahlers was sacked a few times, but even still he contributed 11 yards on 10 attempts. The Pirates as a team got 41 yards on 29 attempts for an average 1.4 yards per carry. That’s only barely better than the 1.2 yards per carry during last season’s finale.
The Pirates nation-leading streak of a receiver with a 1,000-yard season is in danger to end at seven. They look like a receiving core by committee, but they certainly didn’t help Ahlers and the offense gain any momentum on drives with several untimely wide-open drops.
All in all, this game showed a few bottom-line takeaways. One is that Houston has moved the program forward a little bit in the months he has been on the job. It also showed just how far this program had fallen, how far it has to go to get back to previous heights, and how long it will realistically take to reach those heights.
For now, the Pirates are 0-1 and winless in the Mike Houston era. Things can start to look up next week as not only do they host Gardner-Webb but they also show off the new TowneBank Tower to everyone on game day.