PirateIllustrated - Strong Second Half Boosts East Carolina Past USF 29-14
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Strong Second Half Boosts East Carolina Past USF 29-14

Holton Ahlers runs for positive yardage in Thursday night's East Carolina win over South Florida.
Holton Ahlers runs for positive yardage in Thursday night's East Carolina win over South Florida. (Scott Davis Associated Press photo)

East Carolina snagged their fourth win of the season in a 29-14 victory over USF Thursday night in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in the team’s 900th football game. It was not easy at times, but the Pirates seemed to get better as the game went on.

Holton Ahlers completed 21 of 35 for 220 yards and a touchdown and added 78 more yards on the ground. Eight of those passes went to C.J. Johnson who came up big all night for the Pirates in clutch situations along with eight catches from Audi Omotosho who was on the receiving end of an Ahlers touchdown pass. Rahjai Harris had his best ground game of the season with 100 yards and a touchdown and he got help from Keaton Mitchell who ran for 79 yards and a touchdown.

“I wanted to involve my running game a little bit more than I have been and just make better decisions instead of forcing a pass, just take off running like I did in my freshman year,” said Ahlers, “It was good to get going. It was going to be a wet one, so the legs are definitely important there. I’m just proud of the offensive line and the way they played tonight.”

When Ahlers adds to the Pirate rushing game, it adds another dimension to the ECU offense and he talked about that after the game.

“It gave us a lot. I think on third down it made them guard a different type, calling different plays,” Ahlers told PirateIllustrated.com, “I knew on film when they went 38 cloud and they dropped eight that the run was there. That’s what they went early on. It was one of the first couple of drives when I ran it for the first down. Then they had to put a spy on it, that’s when it opened up the short passes to Snead and Ryan - those out routes. Anytime I can run the ball, I need to and just take what they give me and just play the offense.”

Harris recorded his fourth career one hundred yard game and also caught three passes out of the backfield. His determination to get first downs in big situations made a huge difference in the outcome of the game for ECU.

“Rahjai had his best week of practice. On Monday we started practicing a little tempo drill and I told him immediately after that drill that that’s the 47 I remember from last year,” ECU head coach Mike Houston told PirateIllustrated.com, “He just looked more assertive and he wants to be great. He looked like himself in practice and he looked like himself tonight on the field. He and Keaton (Mitchell) were great tonight.”

“I knew that I was prepared, I just have to lead by example,” said Harris, “I’ve got Pop McKay and the younger guys behind me that are looking up to me, so if I go out there at practice, slack off and not work, they’re going to do the same thing. So I just go out there with the right mindset. I might be sore or whatever but it’s college. I’ve got a couple of home boys who play for South Florida and we do a lot of talking before the games and stuff, so they kind of get me ready for the game, but it’s all love.”

Houston seemed pleased with the determination and energy that he got from his team on what was a short week after long rain delays pushed last Saturday’s game well into Sunday morning.

“Really, really excited about the win tonight. The kids were on a short turnaround after a tough game Saturday night and got in about 6:15 Sunday morning to the airport, so really a challenging day just getting your whits about you. It kind of felt like the twilight zone all week because it was just trying to get rested up, trying to get ready on a very short turnaround,” said Houston, “The kids really practiced great this week. It was so impressive and we were so ready to play. I knew it all day today. They were so excited, they were almost too excited before kickoff."

"We came out and had some things go against us there in the first half. It was really frustrating because I felt like we played so well in so many areas, but had a couple of turnovers and did a poor job of getting the ball in the end zone right there before the half which would have been a big touchdown. We regrouped and I thought the kids kept their composure at halftime. We made some adjustments defensively and the big thing on offense was just keep playing.”

“Tyler Snead with a big kickoff return to start the second half kind of set the tone for everything and I mean just a dominant performance in the second half,” Houston said, “Those kids just played their tails off and I’m so proud of them. South Florida is a much improved football team and I told Coach Scott, the performance they put on last week against Temple - the offensive line is a good offensive line. Against a team like that, what a win for our program.”

USF got 192 yards of passing from freshman quarterback Katravious Marsh and a touchdown to lead the Bulls passing attack. Ten of those passes went to Xavier Weaver who pulled down 91 yards receptions and a touchdown along with seven more from Bryce Miller. Kelly Joiner, Jr. rushed for 103 yards to lead the running game for the Bulls.

After a scoreless first quarter, ECU got on the scoreboard on the first play of the second period on a 13-yard touchdown run from Rahji Harris. A missed PAT attempt by Owen Daffer made the Pirates settle for a 6-0 lead.

Jered Mangham’s 24-yard touchdown run gave USF their first lead of the game at 7-6 with 8:43 to go in the half. That was compounded by an ECU fumble by Tyler Snead on the kickoff on the 25 yard line. The Bulls turned that into seven points on a Xavier Weaver 13-yard touchdown catch from Marsh for a 14-6 lead.

ECU moved the football to the one-yard line late in the half, but failed to score and South Florida took a 14-6 lead into the locker room at halftime.

Audi Omotosho’s 17-yard touchdown grab on a pass from Holton Ahlers in the end zone trimmed the USF lead to 14-13. East Carolina got on the scoreboard again on a Malik Fleming 31-yard pick-six to put the Pirates up 19-14 after a unsuccessful two point attempt.

Keaton Mitchell’s 25-yard touchdown run added to an East Carollina lead that expanded to 26-14 with 10:26 remaining to cap a ten play, 80-yard drive.

Three USF offensive penalties on big plays that would have produced positive yards followed by a pass interception from ECU’s Shawn Dorseau that was returned to the Bulls 32-yard line put the Pirates in business again with 7:43 to play. That led to a 37-yard Owen Daffer field goal and a 29-14 lead.

Then Teagan Wilk's first career interception of a Marsh pass put the game on ice for East Carolina. Wilk recorded a career high five tackles and forced his third fumble of the season.

“It’s not really me, it’s more the team. On the interception for me that’s big because it was my first one, but we got a pass rush, got people in great spots so it’s really not me” said Wilk, “If you look at the film it was a tipped pass. The strip, it was just a tackle. We all swarm to the ball. We just happened to get to the ball and it was just from our defense swarming to it.”

With the win, the Pirates improve to 4-4 on the season and 2-2 in conference play while USF dropped to 2-6 overall and 1-3 in AAC action. East Carolina returns next week at home to take on Temple in a 3 p.m. Saturday matchup on ESPN+.