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WOODWARD: Pirates played their best game

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East Carolina sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers throws a pass as Cincinnati's Elijah Ponder pressures at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday night. Ahlers passed for a school-record 535 yards in the Pirates' 46-43 defeat.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Monday, November 4, 2019

Performances in athletics can be great, they can be memorable and they can be record-breaking, but that doesn’t always equal a win.

Sports outcomes can be cruel sometimes, which is what happened Saturday night when East Carolina played its best football game of the season — by far — and No. 17 Cincinnati still rallied during the final five minutes to win 46-43 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

ECU has three games remaining in the regular season, and no matter if it wins or loses those games, the Pirates will not top Saturday’s performance versus a Bearcat team that already stymied UCF, UCLA, Marshall and has one loss that is to Ohio State.

The Buckeyes scored 42 points versus Cincy. High-powered UCF totaled 24 in a 27-24 defeat. ECU scored 43.

Pirate freshman receiver C.J. Johnson played like the best player on the field. His American Athletic Conference-record feat of 283 receiving yards on 12 receptions was two-fold — he was a matchup nightmare down the field and made contested catches versus UC talented cornerbacks in addition to drawing a slew of pass interference penalties.

ECU has a history of great quarterback play, but sophomore Holton Ahlers became the first QB in school history to pass for 500 yards in a game. He was tremendous during the first half and finished with 535 passing yards and five total touchdowns (four passing, one rushing) with one interception, which was costly with 4:38 remaining. The Bearcats turned it into immediate points on a pick-six and two-point conversion for a 43-40 lead.

Safety Daniel Charles, a freshman walk-on last season when Cincy throttled ECU 56-6 in a November game, had two interceptions against two-year starting quarterback Desmond Ridder. It was only the second time in Ridder’s 21-game career that he threw more than one INT.

Ridder helped his team rush for 326 yards, which was huge for the visitors and their successful comeback, but ECU led in most other statistical categories. First downs favored the Pirates 35-20. Passing yards were 535-161.

ECU forced two turnovers and had one giveaway. Time of possession finished 34:05-25:55 in favor of the home team, which was a 24-point underdog.

The Pirates took a 28-21 lead with 3:10 remaining in the second quarter, and they led for most of the second half. It was 40-28 ECU during early portions of the fourth quarter.

It was all adding up to East Carolina’s first win over a ranked team since Sept. 20, 2014. But then it didn’t end that way.

It wasn’t as cruel as UCF’s Hail Mary victory at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in 2014, but it was a different kind of cruel.

The 2014 Pirates went plenty established when they faced UCF during the final week of the regular season. That ECU team already had eight wins.

This team, led by first-year coach Mike Houston and his passion and optimism for future success in Greenville, is now 3-6 overall and 0-5 in the AAC. It is in need of a breakthrough league victory, and surprisingly, it was on track to happen against a ranked team that is on the path to a New Year’s bowl.

Cincinnati found a way to prevent the Pirates from their best moment in years. It was still a great performance by ECU, it just counts as a loss the Pirates had to endure as they continue to move in the right direction with a young and hopeful roster that is yearning to achieve the next breakthrough moment and do it in a victory.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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