Record-Breaking Night Gives ECU its First Win in Birmingham

Grant Foree

December 28, 2022 at 4:04 pm.

Behind a record-setting performance by East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers, the Pirates took down the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, 53-29, in the 2022 TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl at Protective Stadium.

“I was locked in,” said Ahlers. “Anytime you have one final game and a month to prepare for it, I better go out there and play good.”

And locked in he was. Ahlers completed 26-of-38 passes for 300 yards and five touchdowns, while adding seven carries for 60 yards and a touchdown.

To open the game, Ahlers, the Pirates’ four-year starting quarterback, completed 5-of-6 passes, before Keaton Mitchell’s 27-yard carry put ECU in scoring range. The Pirates were lightning-quick and seemed like nothing would stop them from finding the end zone.

Enter the officials, from center stage. After consecutive plays, play was halted for lengthy reviews, which slowed down the game and allowed Coastal Carolina to dial up a blitz that forced East Carolina to settle for a field goal.

After forcing a Coastal punt, ECU took over and immediately took off. On the first play of the drive, Mitchell broke off a 46-yard run, before Ahlers found Isaiah Winstead in the end zone for a 27-yard score.

On the ensuing kickoff, Jared Brown was hit egregiously late on the sideline, which gave the Chanticleers great field position. Coastal Carolina interim head coach Chad Staggs dug into his bag of tricks, calling a double-reverse pass that got Coastal to the 1-yard line.

Two plays later, Reese White scampered into the end zone, putting Coastal Carolina on the board early in the second quarter.

After turning the ball over on downs, ECU bailed Coastal Carolina out twice by committing penalties on two third downs where they had stopped the Chanticleer offense. Grayson McCall took advantage of the mistake by strolling in from nine yards out, giving Coastal Carolina a 14-10 lead. Unfortunately for the Chanticleers, their three-time Sun Belt Player of the Year, McCall was slow to get up after the score.

On the next possession, it would again by Ahlers and Winstead connecting for a touchdown, putting ECU back in front.

ECU scored again before halftime, giving the Pirates a 10-point lead at the break, 24-14.

While the score looked close, it was anything but. ECU ran 36 plays for 330 yards in the first half, while Coastal Carolina ran 35 plays for 142 yards.

The Chanticleers had a chance to get within one possession, but Braydon Bennett fumbled on the first play of the second half, giving ECU the ball inside the Chanticleer 30-yard line. Six plays later, Alhers found Jaylen Johnson in the end zone for a 2-yard score.

Desperately needing a response, Jarrett Guest threw a perfect pass to Tyler Roberts, who hauled it in on the goal line. Coastal had its response and was back in the game, trailing by 10, with plenty of game left.

ECU turned the ball over on downs again, but the Chanticleers wouldn’t capitalize this time, as Guest fumbled the ball while trying to avoid a sack. ECU recovered and marched straight down the field, scoring this time via a Holton Ahlers run.

The fourth quarter was back and forth, though it was too late to change the outcome. ECU and Coastal Carolina traded touchdowns early on in the quarter, thanks to a blocked ECU punt, which set the Chanticleers up inside the 10. CJ Beasley scored and Bryce Archie, Coastal’s third-string quarterback, added a two-point conversion.

Then, with 2:14 to play, Ahlers found Shane Calhoun in the end zone for his fifth passing score and sixth total touchdown, setting TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl records in both categories.

In addition to his game records, Ahlers became the American Athletic Conference record holder for career touchdowns with 122, breaking the mark from Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, which stood for one season.

ECU won its first bowl game since 2013 and won its eighth game of the season, setting the program’s highest single-season victory total since 2014, when ECU last played in a bowl game, coincidentally, in Birmingham.