Turnovers spoil Ahlers’ first career start

Published 4:15 pm Sunday, October 21, 2018

GREENVILLE — A game-time decision by No. 10 Central Florida to not start star quarterback McKenzie Milton mattered little, as East Carolina fumbled away a game it statistically dominated Saturday night, losing to the Knights, 37-10, on homecoming.

ECU’s defense had answers for everything early, making UCF punt on its first four possessions. The unit even held backup QB Darriel Mack to just six passing yards in the first quarter and shut out an opponent in the first quarter for the first time since Nov. 18, 2017. The Pirates (2-5, 0-4 American Athletic Conference) also took the lead through the first quarter after kicker Jake Verity made a 34-yard field goal midway through the frame.

“I thought we played really well at times on defense (and) gave ourselves a chance to go be successful. We held one of the best offenses in the country to just barely over 400 yards,” ECU head coach Scottie Montgomery said. “We got some major stops on third down but the offensive story was turnovers.”

The improved Pirates defense held the Knights (7-0, 4-0 AAC) to field goals until midway through the second quarter, stopping drives and testing the leg of UCF kicker Matthew Wright, who connected from 39 and 41 yards. A pattern from previous weeks was exposed, however, as the defense let up a big play at the 8:33 mark of the second, when wide receiver Quadry Jones connected with fellow wide receiver Adrian Killins on a flea-flicker trick play for a 42-yard score.

The Knights increased their lead to 20-3 after ECU QB Holton Ahlers, who was playing in his first career start, fumbled at the UCF 48 after he rushed three consecutive plays. Instead of going down when coverage appeared, Ahlers hoisted the ball a little higher and took the linebacker on head-on resulting in the first fumble turnover, of four, in the game.

“Unfortunately Holton had the ball up and took on the defender face-to-face. What we’ve really tried to work on is going ahead and getting down and not taking those shots,” Montgomery said.

However, the Pirates did cut the deficit to just 10 points in the third quarter, on a team who hasn’t lost in 19 previous games, after Verity missed a 46-yard field goal to conclude the first half. Ahlers lead a drive from the ECU 14 to find wide receiver Trevon Brown for a 29-yard score.

ECU then held UCF to a field goal, but Brown fumbled it on the ensuing possession, leading to the Knights taking over at ECU’s own 35. The Pirate defense showed up again however, pushing UCF back to the ECU 41 and forcing a punt.

Despite UCF special teams catching the ball with a foot in the end zone, the referees placed the ball at the ECU one-yard line to begin its next drive. Insulted, Ahlers helped drive the Pirates to the opposite one-yard line. However, instead of making it a one-possession game and punching it in from that distance, Ahlers attempted a jump-pass that resulted in a fumble. UCF recovered the fumble and ran it back 98 yards to put the dagger in the coffin for the Pirates. The Knights would tack on the extra point to increase their lead to 20 and would add another touchdown in the fourth to win by 27 points.

“He went to throw it, he said his hand on the ball was wet and when he went to grip it he couldn’t throw it, couldn’t throw it out of the end zone,” Montgomery said. “That would’ve given us another set-up on fourth and one. That was one of his very few mistakes in this football game.”

Deondre Farrier added another fumble to the mix, again in UCF territory, helping give ECU nine turnovers in its last two games. Ahlers’ lone interception gave ECU its eighth interception at home (nine for the season) and helped account for the most turnovers in a game this season. The Pirates uncharacteristically were held to 1-for-3 in the red zone, making them 20-for-24 on the season, and were held to three points in the first half for the third consecutive game.

“We had some mental errors in some situations where Holton looked like he was the blame for some of those plays, but some of our routes weren’t where they were supposed to be,” Montgomery said. “Our receivers did do a better job of being where they were supposed to be, but we’ve got to play penalty free and mistake free.”

In Ahlers’ first career start, he outgained the entire UCF team in yards. Ahlers passed for 406 yards on 29 completions and rushed for 69 yards on 27 attempts. This is the fifth game he has lead ECU in rushing and he has accounted for seven of the Pirates’ touchdowns this season (five rushing, two passing). His 475 yards of offense outgained the Knights by 48 yards as they had 111 passing yards and 316 rushing yards.

“Holton Ahlers played an incredible game,” Montgomery said. “I think he is going to be a fantastic quarterback here in the next weeks. He’s doing everything we’ve asked him to do and he generated the run game.”

With Ahlers’ plethora of passing yards, Brown (145) and Farrier (109) did eclipse the 100-yard mark, helping move the chains on successful drives. But, the run game was non-existent again. ECU’s leading rusher of course was Ahlers, but running back Anthony Scott had just 21 yards. Both compliments to Scott, Trace Christian and Darius Pinnix rushed a combined five times for zero yards.

ECU gets a bye this weekend before facing Memphis (4-4, 1-3 AAC) at home on Nov. 3. The Tigers will also come into the game after having their bye week.