NC State, East Carolina meet in rematch of December blowout
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The last time East Carolina visited North Carolina State, the Pirates were reduced to lining up a last-second field goal merely to avoid being shutout for the first time in more than two decades.
They’ll return to Raleigh to face the Wolfpack again in Saturday’s season opener, a rematch coming nine months after that 58-3 loss under an interim coach to close last season. This time, the Pirates have a new coach in Mike Houston, while Dave Doeren’s Wolfpack is a much younger bunch this time around.
“I think we have an opportunity to go out and show that’s not how our program is going to be identified or remembered,” Houston said, adding: “They’ve got to forget how they played, they’ve got to forget the identity of that team in the past and embrace who we are and what we’re trying to become.”
That December game was certainly memorable as a late schedule addition after both teams had games canceled due to Hurricane Florence. It came roughly two days after the Pirates fired coach Scottie Montgomery and limped into Raleigh to play a veteran Wolfpack team on its way to a second straight nine-win season.
N.C. State was so dominant that the game became a seemingly endless run of celebrations. That even included center Garrett Bradbury scoring on a short touchdown run and then giving the ball to linemate Terrone Prescod to punt it into the stands.
East Carolina finished with 104 yards and avoided its first shutout since October 1997 with a 46-yard field goal to end a humbling afternoon.
The school hired Houston away from James Madison two days after the loss, the most lopsided for either team in series history.
“There is familiarity in a way, because you’ve played them,” Doeren said. “But at the same time, you’re facing a different staff with different personnel.”
Here are some other things to know about East Carolina-N.C. State opener:
With three-year starter Ryan Finley gone to the NFL, North Carolina State is turning to redshirt sophomore Matthew McKay as its new quarterback.
McKay will make his first career start against the Pirates after appearing in five games behind Finley and completing 7 of 8 passes. He won the starting job after a preseason battle with redshirt freshman Devin Leary and Bailey Hockman, a redshirt sophomore who started his career at Florida State.
“I just put it in my mind that I wanted to be the starter and spoke it into existence,” McKay said, “and put my head down and worked.”
THE NEW NO. 3
Kelvin Harmon spent last season wearing the No. 3 and being the Wolfpack’s go-to receiving target. He’s gone to the NFL, leaving 6-foot-3 junior Emeka Emezie (616 yards) as the likely top target for McKay in this one.
Fittingly, Emezie has claimed Harmon’s No. 3 for his uniform.
AHLERS’ NEXT STEP
East Carolina doesn’t have the same uncertainty at quarterback with mobile returning starter Holton Ahlers.
Ahlers gives the Pirates a two-way threat. He ran for a team-best 592 yards with six scores as a true freshman in addition to throwing for 1,785 yards with 12 touchdowns, with the bulk of that coming in his five starts last year.
While Houston wasn’t with the Pirates for the 58-3 loss last December, it marks the second straight year he’ll coach a season opener in the Wolfpack’s Carter-Finley Stadium. Houston’s final James Madison team opened last season with a 24-13 road loss to the Wolfpack, nearly one year to the day of Saturday’s game.
Additionally, Houston is trying to become the Pirates’ fourth straight first-year coach to win his debut with the school.
GETTING THEM READY
N.C. State’s coaching staff has a lot of work to do in preparing the team’s youngsters to take significant roles.
There are 56 true or redshirt freshmen, including a program-record 19 players who enrolled in January. N.C. State said the returning offensive starters combine for 61 career starts, far less than last year’s total (152).
“A roster full of guys that know our culture, know our expectations, were recruited into our systems — there’s comfort in that,” Doeren said.