On Saturday, Pirate Nation received a glimpse of the future of ECU’s football program. Due to issues stemming from COVID-19, junior quarterback Holton Ahlers could not suit up for ECU, leaving back-up Mason Garcia to take over the duties of signal-caller.

In front of a national audience and 3,500 fans in attendance at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, ECU leaned heavily on a trio of true freshmen and took conference foe Navy down to the wire, ultimately losing 27-23. With the loss, ECU drops to 1-3 on the season.

“I just really like my team. I love those kids,” ECU head coach Mike Houston said postgame. “They’ve changed the program. You guys can’t see what I see every single day. I tell you, that bunch fights. I’m proud of them. Just the effort that they gave today and the adversity they’ve had all week this week and the effort they gave today and the way they compete, the way they care about each other, the way they trust us as coaches.”

For the first time this season, ECU was forced to deal with multiple players being out due to COVID-19 and the subsequent contact tracing. Of the five players that missed Saturday’s contest, only one tested positive for the virus, according to Houston.

“The kids, the way they handled themselves — you’re sitting there on Tuesday at the team meeting and they come in and they pull 10 players out and you wonder how you’re going to line up and practice,” Houston said. “I was concerned about being able to play the game. The kids, they never flinched, they didn’t flinch all week.”

Lined up against a Navy squad that has had ECU’s number of late, the Pirates failed to flinch once again. Trailing by four points late in the fourth quarter, Blake Harrell’s defense came up with a huge stop on third and three, only to see Nelson Smith and Navy’s offense pick up a fourth and two conversion to move the chains and effectively end the home team’s chances for a comeback.

“When they got the ball back with 6:33 to go, you knew you had to get a stop somewhere in there,” Houston said. “We had to get it to a fourth down, we had to get a stop in there. If you get it there and you get a stop, you win the game, or you have a shot to win the game…Obviously a huge play in the ball game. I thought we had the right call defensively. Inches is what it came down to.”

Entering the fourth quarter, it looked like the Pirates had let the game slip from their grasp. Back-to-back Navy drives resulted in touchdowns for the Midshipmen, the latter of which took nearly six minutes off the clock and advanced the score to 27-13. Under head coach Ken Niumatalolo, Navy was 83-5 when leading after three quarters prior to Saturday.

While that record was improved on Saturday, Houston’s squad immediately responded in the fourth quarter with a two-play, 84-yard drive capped off by an 80-yard touchdown run by true freshman running back Rahjai Harris.

Vaulting the Pirates back into the contest, that long run put an exclamation point on yet another 100-yard performance by Harris. After scoring his first two collegiate touchdowns a week ago, Harris reeled off another score and 172 yards on 22 carries to lead both programs on the afternoon.

“Coming out here today, I just had to do it,” Harris said. “I had the team on my back. Offensive line played great, the whole team played great. Just couldn’t get the win today.”

ECU finished Saturday’s contest 21 yards short of out-rushing the triple-option attack of Navy on 12 less carries. The 172-yard effort from Harris helped, but so did 63 yards on 15 attempts from Garcia, who scored his first collegiate touchdown in the second quarter to put the Pirates up 13-7.

With his arm, Garcia finished 10-for-20 for 104 yards through the air and could never really settle into a groove throwing the football with pressure consistently coming from Navy.

“It’s different in practice and you get out there and they’re throwing live bullets at you,” Houston said of Garcia. “We all know he is an extremely talented young man and he is going to improve with every piece of experience he gets. You saw him on those runs, he’s a grown kid now. We just got to keep developing him, keep working with him.”

Aside from Harris’ outstanding effort, it was ECU’s defense that kept the contest close. On two of Navy’s first three possessions, the Pirates forced turnovers, capitalizing on a forced fumble with a field goal. Across the Midshipmen’s next five drives spanning the second quarter and into the third quarter, ECU allowed only one sustained drive while forcing three, three-and-outs.

“You can have as good a plan as you want to, but if they don’t go out there and fight like they did, the plan ain’t worth anything,” Houston said. “That’s the real key to the whole thing is the performance of the players. They fought their guts off. Navy is good at what they do, that staff has been together forever. They made some great adjustments, they did some things that we hadn’t seen and we had to make some adjustments. It was just a great battle out there, but it was the performance of the kids.”

After Navy quarterback Dalen Morris went down with an injury, Navy seemed to kick their run game into high gear. A 29-yard touchdown rush by Smith mid-way through the third quarter put Navy up for good, while Jamale Carothers’ score proved to be the difference-maker.

Nevertheless, ECU linebacker Xavier Smith ended up with a career-best 15 tackles as Rick D’Abreu joined him in the double-digit department with 10. Defensive end Chris Willis had his best game as a Pirate, logging nine tackles, including a sack.

“The guys on this team, the guys in the locker room, we all surround each other,” Xavier Smith said. “We all support each other. The group that was on the field today, all we do is go out there and fight, do our job and keep fighting. That’s all we can do.”

Offensively, the Pirates actually out-gained Navy 372-318 and stuck with the Midshipmen in the time of possession battle (31:29-28:31 Navy). On the back of Harris’ big day, ECU set a season-high in single-game rushing yards with 268 and averaged six yards per carry.

ECU was only flagged three times on the afternoon, all coming on one drive in the first quarter. Despite their defense holding Navy to a 4-for-12 effort on third down, the Pirates could only convert three of their 13 opportunities. ECU did pick up two fourth down conversions, including one on its last possession to keep the hopes of a comeback alive.

“They (the players) woke up this morning and they got to the facility and they were confident we were going to win this football game,” Houston said. “They were confident in our plan on both sides of the ball, they were confident in each other, they were confident in everything that we had going on. I think that just shows the character that they have. I think it shows just how tight knit they are. We couldn’t have asked for them to handle everything this week any better than they did.”

The result notwithstanding, ECU showed much more fight on Saturday than they did one year ago in a 42-10 loss against Navy in Annapolis, Maryland. For Houston and his staff, that shows just how much growth this program has made since they took over a little less than two years ago.

“This team is going to get better every single week,” Houston said. “We got a lot of season left. My hat is off to Navy, they played a phenomenal game, did what they had to do to win the game. I’m just really, really proud of the kids and the way they fought. Pretty special effort out there today.”

ECU will be back in action on Oct. 30 against Tulsa following an idle week. Kick-off from Tulsa, Oklahoma is scheduled for 9 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

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