Playing better on offense was a big part of the game plan for the Pirates heading into their second consecutive road game of the 2020 season. After failing to score an offensive touchdown against Georgia State a week ago, ECU found the end zone a total of five times in a 44-24 win over USF on Saturday. With the win, the Pirates improve to 1-2 on the season.

“Obviously I’m just incredibly proud of our kids,” head coach Mike Houston said postgame. “Not enough words to say — had our best week of practice. Defense had its best Tuesday practice, offense had its best practice on Wednesday. The last 48 hours, walk-throughs were great on Friday, they were great today. Kids were locked in during meetings. Just the attention to detail, the urgency, and also, we were relaxed.”

Having lost 10 of its last 11 American Athletic Conference road games heading into Saturday night, the Pirates avoided going 0-3 with well over 400 yards of offense behind a strong running attack.

“Really pleased with our offensive line and how they responded this week,” Houston said. “Played very well, that lineup, it’s their second game together, so played much better. The running backs, just really liked the way those kids ran with authority.”

In all three games this season, ECU has scored in the first five minutes of game action, and once again jumped out to an early advantage on Saturday. What was different from the first two games was what came after. A quick response by USF was answered with 21 straight points by the Pirates.

With long sustained drives and some quick strikes, ECU quickly mounted a 17-7 lead at the end of the first quarter. A week after struggling to run the football, head coach Mike Houston got his two freshmen running backs in Keaton Mitchell and Rahjai Harris the ball early and often.

Rahjai Harris, a true freshman from South Carolina, led the way for the Pirates, finding the end zone twice in the first half alone, and becoming the first ECU running back to accomplish that in over a calendar year.

“Coach Houston came up to me during the week and he was telling me, ‘you’re going to get your opportunity this week, so you got to make it happen,’” Harris said. “I was just preparing for it all week, practicing hard. Offensive linemen, they were getting after it all week, so it showed up here today.”

Behind a front five that was still without left tackle D’Ante Smith and Noah Henderson, Harris found pay dirt with a 42-yard rushing score one play after Malik Fleming forced a Bulls turnover near mid-field for his first collegiate score.

Up 24-7 early in the second quarter, the Pirates went to work controlling the clock by pounding the football down USF’s throat. Able to score points off both of the Bulls’ turnovers, ECU also capitalized on a mis-handled punt with the home squad backed up against their own end zone.

Needing just a play for Harris to find the end zone for the second time on the evening after the botched punt, ECU never turned back from its 31-17 halftime lead.

Despite out-gaining the Pirates in the first half, USF managed just 101 yards of offense in the game’s final 30 minutes. Up multiple scores for the majority of Saturday’s game thanks to three passing touchdowns from the left arm of Holton Ahlers, two of which went the way of his former high school teammate C.J. Johnson, ECU’s defensive coordinator Blake Harrell was able to get after USF signal-caller Jordan McCloud.

“Played very well,” Houston said of his defense. “Had some tough situations, too. Had a couple short fields and were able to convert and get off there. Played very well. I think every week we’re playing a little bit better on that side of the football, so just hope this gives us some confidence and we can continue on.”

Seemingly every play Harrell brought pressure, and many times it got home. Without a sack through two games heading into Saturday, the Pirates left Tampa with five, including a pair from Jireh Wilson. The Pirates also added 13 tackles for loss and held running back Johnny Ford and company to just 2.7 yards per carry on the ground.

With the defense able to pin its ears back, the Pirates kept it in the hands of their two true freshmen running backs. Behind an offensive line that played with a lot of confidence in the win, the duo of Mitchell and Harris combined for 34 carries, 157 yards and two scores. Harris became the Pirates’ first 100-yard rusher of the 2020 season with his 115-yard effort. All told, ECU rushed the ball 47 times with four different players and racked up 210 yards, helping them win the time of possession battle by more than 11 minutes.

“With the running backs, it’s a competition, we’ve talked about it, it’s been ongoing,” Houston said. “Those two have been performing at a very high level. They had the best week this week. Keaton had the best week of all of them. Rahjai has been consistently right there also, and just felt like they had earned the right to go out there and get those opportunities, and they did a great job.”

A week removed from throwing the football 50 times, Donnie Kirkpatrick called on Ahlers to throw just 26 times against a defense that entered Saturday leading the nation in passing defense. Ahlers’ 75-yard strike to Johnson in the first quarter helped the Pirates build a solid lead, while their 14-yard hook-up late in the third quarter did a lot to ice the game.

After catching just three passes in two weeks, Johnson was targeted five times, hauling in three catches for 99 yards and two touchdowns. Ahlers connected with nine other receivers not named Johnson, including four completions to Blake Proehl for 36 yards.

“He should have had a bigger night than he did, had a couple of balls that he probably should have been able to convert there, also,” Houston said regarding Johnson’s play. “Certainly the two huge plays were difference-making plays and he has that ability. He’s in a good place, he was loose, he wasn’t getting caught up in stuff and just really liked the way he played tonight.”

While Ahlers did not put up flashy numbers on the stat sheet — racking up just 222 yards — he passed for three touchdowns and kept numerous drives alive with his ability to scramble.

All told, the Pirates cleared 400 yards of offense for the second time in three weeks and did so with a very balanced attack of 222 passing yards and 210 rushing yards. With the offensive line jelling much better this week, Ahlers was just sacked once as the Bulls netted only five tackles for loss.

“That’s the bunch that I’m probably the most proud of…You saw a much better cohesion there, but the biggest thing I liked was just their determination,” Houston said in regards to ECU’s offensive line. “They had great attitudes on the sideline, really embraced wanting to get downhill on this bunch, establish the run game. Did a great job in pass protection — which obviously Holton had a lot more time to throw this week and when he has time to throw, he’s a great quarterback. Really proud of that bunch. (Steve) Shank(weiler) did a great job with them this week.”

For much of ECU’s roster, Saturday’s win was their first in purple and gold. While it took three games to get it, they can now enjoy the spoils of their efforts with a signature Mike Houston victory dinner on Sunday night.

“I promise you, I don’t care if I got to pay for it out of my pocket, we’re having a victory dinner tomorrow night,” Houston said. “The kids are already asking for it. We’re going to have steak and shrimp and peanut butter pie tomorrow night.”

Next on the schedule for ECU is a matchup with Navy inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium next Saturday. Kick-off between the Pirates and Midshipmen is scheduled for noon. The game can be streamed on ESPN+.

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