Ending season with 2 straight wins gives ECU momentum

The emergence of freshman running back Keaton Mitchell helped East Carolina close its season with two straight wins. (Aaron Doster / AP Photo)

At face value, the 2020 season was a disappointing one for the East Carolina football team.

It started with the cancellation of a game against Marshall designed to pay tribute to the Thundering Herd on the 50th anniversary of the plane crash that wiped out their team after playing the Pirates in Greenville, one of three games lost to the coronavirus pandemic, and ended with a sixth straight losing record.

Not all seasons, however, can be judged by the numbers on a ledger.

For ECU, this one is markedly different from the others in that for the first time since Ruffin McNeill was fired in 2015, the team heads into an offseason with a burst of confidence and positive momentum.

“We’re just excited,” said junior quarterback Holton Ahlers after throwing for 298 yards and four touchdowns to lead a 52-38 win against SMU on Saturday, a performance that earned him recognition as the American Athletic Conference’s Offensive Player of the Week.

“We’re young. We’ve got to grow up a little bit, but overall we’re headed in the right direction. The darker days of ECU football are definitely behind us, and we’re starting to climb the mountain we’ve been trying to do for a while now.”

It’s an ascension coach Mike Houston insisted he saw coming in his second season with the program, despite a late start and other coronavirus-related issues that adversely affected the Pirates’ performance on the field.

The most frustrating development came on Oct. 30 at Tulsa, when a blown call on the Hurricanes’ final drive — an official’s mistake that was later acknowledged by the AAC — turned what should have been a badly needed win into yet another loss.

Two more losses followed, including a 55-17 thrashing at the hands of then-No. 7 Cincinnati.

But instead of going through the motions and playing out the string as it has in previous years, the Pirates bounced back by beating Temple 28-3 on Nov. 21 before saving its best for last by overwhelming a seven-win SMU team with season-high totals of 493 yards and 52 points, 48 of which were scored before halftime.

“A two-game winning streak and a signature win against a quality opponent going into the offseason, there’s going to be momentum with recruiting, there will obviously be momentum with the players,” Houston said. “Certainly, having that positive momentum going into this break is important because when (the players) come back in mid-January, we’ve got to hit the ground running. We have a chance now to change the program permanently, and we’ve got to use that momentum.”

The back-to-back wins marked the first time since 2015 that ECU has beaten consecutive AAC opponents. It was also the first time since 2013 that the Pirates have gone two games in a row from start to finish without trailing.

The SMU game was especially meaningful because it came against a team in the top third of the conference standings — one that was ranked earlier this season.

Ahlers called it “the big win we’ve been looking for.”

The junior quarterback has every reason to be optimistic about the future. He’s finally surrounded by a full array of offensive weapons now that talented freshman running backs Rahjai Harris and Keaton Mitchell have been added to a veteran receiving corps led by the trio of C.J. Johnson, Blake Proehl and Tyler Snead.

And because of the NCAA’s ruling that players won’t lose a year of eligibility because of the disjointed nature of the 2020 season, everyone is expected to be back again next year.

That promises to be an even more encouraging development on defense, where the Pirates made their biggest improvement under new coordinator Blake Harrell.

Although the season numbers don’t suggest it — ECU’s opponents averaged 447 yards and 35.4 points per game — the Pirates made noticeable strides over the final two games. Against SMU, the defense held the high-powered Mustangs to just 70 rushing yards while forcing three turnovers, including two late interceptions to preserve the victory.

“We work too hard week in and week out to keep losing games like we do,” said sophomore linebacker Jireh Wilson, who led the team with 10 tackles and had a key forced fumble and recovery in Saturday’s season finale.

“We wanted to get at least one of these wins to show that we belong in this conference. All week we were saying we wanted to end the season on top and go into the offseason with confidence. And that’s what we did.”