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USF football: Five things to know about East Carolina

No, the Pirates aren’t great this season, but they have more fight than last year’s bunch.

A quick look at East Carolina (3-4, 0-3), which hosts USF (3-4, 1-2) Saturday at 3:45 p.m. in Greenville, N.C.

1. These guys beat UCF … for a half

East Carolina running back Demetrius Mauney, left, runs past UCF defensive lineman (and Sickles High alumnus) Anthony Montalvo, right, during the first half of Saturday's game in Orlando. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

Evan as USF fans ask if their team possesses the resilience needed to keep fighting at this juncture, the Pirates answered those same questions with resounding affirmation in Saturday’s 41-28 loss at UCF. Down 35-6 at halftime, ECU outscored the Knights 22-6 in the second half, outgaining them 322-193 in that span.

“I told them that they were going to be defined by how they responded after halftime,” first-year coach Mike Houston said. “I’ll be honest that the old bunch, from early in this season and last year, it would have been a miserable second half. But that is not the way this bunch has been.”

2. Futrell a force

UCF's Darriel Mack Jr. (8) is tackled by East Carolina's Alex Turner (94) with Kendall Futrell (44) looking on during the first half of last season's game in Greenville. [ KARL B DEBLAKER | AP ]

Whomever starts at quarterback for USF must be cognizant of Pirates defensive end Kendall Futrell, one of the American Athletic Conference’s more underrated players.

A 6-foot-2, 226-pound senior, Futrell leads the AAC with eight sacks, seven of which have come in his last four games. He recorded five tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble at UCF.

MORE BULLS: Saddled with rookie quarterbacks, Charlie Strong challenges USF receivers

3. Be leery of the lefty

East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers, left, scores a touchdown on a 20-yard run as he get past UCF defensive back Antwan Collier last Saturday. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

The Bulls appear to be catching Pirates 6-foot-3 left-handed sophomore Holton Ahlers just as he’s finding his groove as ECU’s starting quarterback.

Ahlers has thrown for at least 200 yards in each of his last four games, including a season-high 313 yards (23-for-27) at UCF. Though still not the most efficient passer in the league (his 114.6 rating ranks ninth), Ahlers possesses just enough mobility (259 rushing yards, four TDs) to keep opponents honest.

A favorite son of sorts, Ahlers starred at Greenville’s D.H. Conley High, where he became the No. 3 all-time passer in North Carolina prep history (11,198 yards). A former Conley teammate, freshman C.J. Johnson, has emerged as Ahlers’ top target this season (27 catches, 314 yards, two TDs).

4. A nod to history

Houston, who won a Division I-AA national title at James Madison in 2016, quickly endeared himself to the ECU fan base in part by bringing at least two familiar ― and popular ― faces with him to Greenville.

Donnie Kirkpatrick, Houston’s offensive coordinator at JMU, was a Pirates offensive assistant under both Skip Holtz and Ruffin McNeill during a stretch (2005-15) when ECU won a pair of Conference USA crowns and reached eight bowl games.

Houston also brought along his offensive line coach, Steve Shankweiler, who held the same job in three previous stints in Greenville including 1991, when ECU (11-1) finished ninth nationally and made the Peach Bowl.

The Pirates, incidentally, have allowed 14 sacks in seven contests after surrendering 34 last season. They’re also gaining more yards per play (5.3) than in 2018 (5.0).

5. If it comes down to a kick…

East Carolina's Jake Verity (9) kicks a field goal in the closing seconds for the team's only score during the second half of last season's 58-3 loss at N.C. State. [ CHRIS SEWARD | AP ]

If the oddsmakers’ projections play out (USF currently is listed as a one-point favorite), this one may very well come down to a field goal, which bodes brightly for East Carolina.

Junior Jake Verity has attempted (18) and converted (14) more field goals than any other American Athletic Conference kicker this season, and has hit 33 of 39 since the start of 2018. Though he has missed his only two attempts from beyond 50 yards this year, he’s 3-for-4 from 40-49 yards, and has converted all 14 of his PATs.