Holton Ahlers, East Carolina ready to exact revenge vs. Navy

National Sports

Holton Ahlers, East Carolina ready to exact revenge vs. Navy

Being sidelined while in COVID-19 protocol for last season’s game against Navy was a tough break for East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers. Making it harder to stomach was watching his replacement struggle in a 27-23 home loss.

A year later, Ahlers and East Carolina (6-4, 4-2 American Athletic Conference) are ship shape for Navy (2-7, 2-4), Saturday in Annapolis, Md. With last week’s uplifting 30-29 overtime victory at Memphis, the Pirates have won three straight and are bowl eligible for the first time in seven years.

In his third year as head coach, Mike Houston has guided a successful transformation of ECU.

“When I took this job three years ago, I kind of wrote down some goals,” Houston said. “One of the top goals was to get us bowl eligible and I kind of put a date on it. We made it. It was this year.”

Two years ago, when Houston entrusted the quarterback job to Ahlers, there were some low points, especially early in the 4-8 season. The worst came in Annapolis, where Navy throttled ECU 42-10 loss as Ahlers threw for a season-low 138 yards.

Two years later however, Ahlers has progressed. And with a balanced attack that includes AAC rushing leader Keaton Mitchell, who has rolled for 983 yards and a 7.1 average per carry, the Pirates are on the upswing. They can clinch their first winning season since 2014 with a victory over Navy.

A winning season is not in the cards for Navy. After making a bowl game in 11 of his first 13 years in Annapolis, Ken Niumatalolo has gone 5-14 the last two seasons as his magic touch with quarterbacks has faded.

In its run-heavy triple-option offense, highly dependent on the ball-handling, decision-making and speed of its quarterbacks, Navy has struggled with sophomores Tai Lavatai and Xavier Arline. The Mids rank last in the AAC in scoring (16.8 points) and offense (270.7 yards).

A week off following a 34-6 loss at Notre Dame could serve Navy well as it strives for its sixth straight win in the series. To accomplish that, the offense will have to stay mistake-free.

“Our offense is not built to play from behind the sticks,” Arline said. “We’ve got to clean that stuff up. If we can, we’ll be a lot better.”

–Field Level Media

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