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UCF Opponent Preview: East Carolina Pirates

UCF plays at East Carolina one more time prior to joining the Big XII.

The 2022 UCF Knights’ football schedule will present a familiar foe one more time before heading to the Big XII, the East Carolina Pirates. In 2021, the Pirates put together their first winning season in the last six years, going 7-5 with a 5-3 conference record, and finishing fourth in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) standings.

Some may remember the last time the Pirates had a winning record. That was in 2014, when the Pirates battled with UCF in a bout that would end with one of the two teams earning a share of the first-ever AAC title. 

The Pirates had all but put the finishing touches on UCF when former QB Justin Holman launched a 51-yard hail mary into the hands of a leaping Breshad Perriman, in turn ripping that share of the AAC title out of ECU’s hands and into UCF’s.

The 2021 meeting between the two teams finished in a similar fashion, although it was not as outrageous. UCF won a gritty, hard fought match 20-16 after a Mark-Antony Richards rushing touchdown from the one yard line sealed the deal with 23 seconds remaining. That game was UCF QB Mikey Keene’s second career start after the Knights lost Dillon Gabriel due to injury.

Let’s take an early look at what the Pirates will be working with next season.

QB Holton Ahlers

East Carolina is yet another team with a very skilled quarterback that UCF will try to slow down in 2022. Holton Ahlers will be entering his fifth year as a starter for the Pirates, and is second to West Virginia’s Jarret Doege among all current FBS quarterbacks in career passing yards with 8,434.

Ahlers was one of 34 FBS quarterbacks to eclipse 3,000 passing yards last season, going for 3,126 on the campaign. He added 18 touchdowns through the air to 10 interceptions. However, although one would never guess it based on the team’s record last year vs previous seasons, it was not his best career year statistically.

While he has been a threat on the ground at times in his career, Ahlers did not show much of that in 2021, rushing 116 times for 204 yards, in what went for a measly 1.8 yards per rush. He did score six times on the ground. He was also sacked nearly twice as often as his previous career high, ending up on the ground 36 times last season. It seems his ability to escape pressure took a step back last season. UCF was able to sack him four times in last year’s matchup, and he went 20 of 32 for 219 yards, adding a touchdown and an interception.

Ahlers’ favorite receiver in 2021 was Tyler Snead, and that rang true vs UCF as well, as he led the team with six catches for 82 yards. Snead will not be with the team in 2022, however, as he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL as an undrafted free agent. Ahlers will be looking for a new top receiver for his last season under center at ECU.

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Turnovers Go Both Ways

The Pirates turned the ball over nearly twice per game last season, finishing with 22 on the year, the 16th most in the nation. However, they got takeaways at exactly the same clip, giving them a turnover ratio of zero. In other words, the Pirate offense is prone to make mistakes, while the defense is opportunistic.

The good news offensively about the turnovers for ECU was that only four of them came in the fourth quarter, and all four were in games that were blowouts. In short, they did not seem to turn the ball over at inopportune times. Red zone turnovers were also way down compared to anywhere else on the field. All turnovers are treated the same on the stat sheet, but taking care of the ball in clutch situations is a vital component to winning.

UCF was able to turn the Pirates over three times in the meeting last year, by way of two fumbles and an Ahlers interception (albeit one of the fumbles was on the final play of the game on a hook-and-ladder type of play). UCF’s only turnover was a Mikey Keene interception on the third play of the second half.

Solid Defense

The Pirates’ defense was leaky at times, and some of the better offenses they faced had a field day against them. ECU allowed 28 or more points eight times in 2021. UCF managed just 20 last season vs the Pirate defense.

In terms of yards, ECU was 80th in the nation defensively allowing just under 400 yards per game. The defense was 59th in points scored against, allowing 25.8 points per game.

The stat that stands out the most for the Pirates’ defense was their third down conversion defense, allowing a third down conversion just 32 percent of the time, good for 12th in FBS. The main problem was that they had trouble getting teams to third down. ECU only forced 153 third downs.

Final Notes

  • East Carolina will look to continue to improve their record under third-year Head Coach Mike Houston.
  • The Pirates will bring back redshirt sophomore Keaton Mitchell this season, who ran for over 1,100 yards last season. He ran for 65 yards on 17 carries vs the Knights last year.
  • The Knights and the Pirates each have 10 wins against each other all-time, but UCF has won six straight.
  • The 2022 meeting may be the final meeting for a long while, as UCF will depart for the Big 12 on July 1, 2023.

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