It was a tough ask for the Pirates to open their season after one of the strangest off-seasons in college football history. Tasked with slowing down the No. 13 ranked UCF Knights on Saturday, ECU’s defense kept the Pirates in the game early before giving up 632 yards in a 51-28 loss inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

“Obviously disappointed not to get the win,” ECU head coach Mike Houston said. “Thought that we had a great opportunity coming into this game. Really like our roster, I like our team. Everybody knows what happened, everybody watched the game. Thought we played with tremendous energy and intensity and physicality defensively out of the gate.”

With a pair of newcomers near the top of the tackle chart in Shawn Dourseau and Robert Kennedy, ECU’s defense found itself on the field often after the offense coughed up three fumbles for the first time since 2018. All three of those fumbles came in the first half for the Pirates and only yielded three points for a Knights offense that continued to shoot itself in the foot with false start penalties early on Saturday.

Before UCF could complete an offensive snap, they had four false start flags thrown against them en route to 19 total penalties on the afternoon.

A nine-play, 75-yard drive on ECU’s opening possession that was capped with a 17-yard pass from Holton Ahlers to Darius Pinnix ensured the Pirates would stay competitive through the game’s first 15 minutes. Pass plays of at least 15 yards to C.J. Johnson and Audie Omotosho helped ECU move the football early as Ahlers was a perfect 5-for-5 through the air on the first drive.

With the box checked next to getting out to a quick start, ECU could not check the turnover box on the to-do list for victory. After only turning the football over 17 times as a team in 2019 (third fewest since 2000), the Pirates fumbled the ball away three consecutive times in the first quarter, allowing UCF the opportunity to capitalize on good field position. Overall, the Pirates turned the football over four times on Saturday.

“Loved our first drive offensively,” Houston said. “Took it down and got seven points, got it going. Really had the opportunity to get some control of the ball game and had three turnovers. You had three turnovers there in the first quarter. It’s where you’re around mid-field and you got a chance to stick the ball in again to take control of the game, to get a lead on what everybody regards as the best team in our league, and those mistakes, you just can’t keep making them.”

While the Knights were only able to take a 10-7 lead off those mis-ques, it quickly became clear that ECU’s defense had run out of juice, and without assistance from the offense, UCF was able to quickly push the game out of reach.

Following a turnover on downs to begin the second quarter, UCF reeled off five straight scoring drives, four of which were touchdown passes from the left arm of Dillon Gabriel. A busted assignment in ECU’s secondary allowed Gabriel to find Jaylon Robinson for a 64-yard touchdown toss before the Knights pushed their advantage to 27-7 with a 7-yard touchdown score with 24 seconds left in the half.

“As the game went on, obviously the tempo — I feel like the tempo kind of got us just a little bit, but not really because we was handling it well throughout the game,” ECU linebacker Xavier Smith said. “We just got to do a better job of executing and making the plays we have to make.”

Drives of eight plays and six plays ended with Gabriel’s third and fourth touchdown passes of the afternoon, giving him two consecutive games with that many to begin the 2020 season.

In those drives, ECU’s defense flashed some positive plays, both on the back-end in coverage and occasionally in the run game. While four different players ended up with at least seven tackles for the Pirates, ECU was only able to break into the back field for two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries. They were not, however, able to force a turnover as the Knights went a perfect 7-for-7 in the red zone on their way to racking up north of 630 yards of offense.

“I think our speed and our movement really did some good things to slow down UCF,” Houston said. “I think that’s what you look at against a team like that. That explosive of an offense, you’re never going to completely stop them, but if you can slow them down, then that gives you the shot and that’s what we did…Disappointed we didn’t force any turnovers. That’s a big goal for us, so that’s something we got to continue to work on.”

Offensively, ECU was largely unable to get anything going after traversing the field to open the game. In four plays across two drives, the Pirates put the football on the ground twice. The real heartbreaking turnover, however, came at the tailend of an 11-play drive that saw ECU make it to mid-field with solid ball movement.

After that 11-play drive, ECU’s next five drives totaled just 19 plays and resulted in a turnover on downs, an end of the half and three punts. Unable to get much time in the pocket behind an offensive line that saw some turn over during the off-season, Ahlers and his receivers could never really get on the same page.

Down 41-7 mid-way through the third quarter, ECU committed to the run game and ended up rushing the football 54 times on Saturday. Ahlers, Pinnix and Rahjai Harris each eclipsed 10 carries, while Chase Hayden and Keaton Mitchell all saw sustained time in the backfield.

All told, the Pirates rushed for 244 yards and threw the football only 12 times in the second half. Mitchell, a true freshman, rushed for 66 yards on eight carries, while Pinnix paced the team in carries and logged ECU’s only rushing score on Saturday.

Down a significant amount late in the contest, ECU began stringing together strong possessions. An eight-play, 92-yard march down the field ended with the first 252 connection of the season between Ahlers and Johnson, this one of the 37-yard variety.

ECU engineered twelve- and 11-play drives in two of its last three possessions, but could ultimately not keep pace despite a three touchdown effort from their junior quarterback.

UCF’s offensive output on Saturday means the Pirates have allowed back-to-back 600-yard performances dating back to last season against Tulsa. At one point, Gabriel completed a school record amount of consecutive passes and finished the day 32-for-47 with 408 yards and four touchdowns through the air.

In the receiving department, Omotosho paced the Pirates with three catches as eight different wide-outs caught a pass from the left arm of Ahlers. Johnson caught just two of Ahlers’ 14 completed passes for 52 yards and a score after only being targeted five times.

“I was disappointed in our production right there,” Houston said. “If you tell me that we’re going to have man coverage, I would say we’re going to have a pretty good day. It will be interesting when we look at the film to see how we played, because obviously either they played exceptional or we didn’t play up to our ability level.”

Tyler Snead caught ECU’s final touchdown of the game, a seven yarder with under 30 seconds left. The sophomore ended the day with only two catches for eight yards and a score.

Ahlers finished the day 14-for-29 with 215 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. On the ground, the junior rushed for 55 yards on 12 attempts.

Overall, the Pirate put up 459 yards of offense, with 245 of that coming in the second half. Early in the game and late in the game, the Pirates were able to move the football with relative ease, it was the middle portion of ineffectiveness that allowed UCF to build too big of an advantage.

“They are one of the best teams in the country and one of the best teams in the conference,” Ahlers said of UCF. “I believe that we got a pretty good team too, we just got to go out there and battle a little bit better. I got to be better, it starts with me no matter what and I’m going to take that in and continue to work this week.”

Right now, ECU is scheduled to play Georgia State next Saturday in Atlanta. Kick-off is slated for noon.

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