BIRMINGHAM, Ala – Holton Ahlers threw a Birmingham Bowl-record five touchdown passes and accounted for a game-record six TDs to help East Carolina beat Coastal Carolina 53-29 in the TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl at Protective Stadium.
Ahlers, selected the game MVP, threw for 300 yards on 26-of-38 passing, rushed for 37 yards and a touchdown and caught a pass for 14 yards for the Pirates (8-5).
“I was locked in,” Ahlers said. “Anytime you have a month to prepare for a game, you better be locked in and play good. We had a good plan to get some quick throws early and get the receivers going. They did a really good job.”
Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall, the three-time Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year who entered the transfer portal this month, wasn’t as fortunate.
Presumably, McCall’s final play in a Coastal Carolina uniform came on a 9-yard touchdown run. He was hit while tumbling into the end zone and never returned to the game. Jarrett Guest replaced him in the first half and played most of the second half. McCall’s run gave Coastal Carolina (9-4) a 14-10 lead. By halftime, though, Chanticleers were in a 24-14 hole.
Coastal Carolina was fortunate to only be down 10 at halftime. East Carolina had six drives in the first half with four finishing in scores. One ended with a fourth- down stop by Coastal Carolina and the other finished with the Pirates running out the final 35 seconds of the half.
Ahlers was accurate on throws of all depths, connecting on 17 of 22 passes for 213 yards with touchdown passes of 27 and 11 yards to Isaiah Winstead. ECU running back Keaton Mitchell was also effective, carrying the ball 10 times for 107 yards with a 1-yard touchdown run.
“What a great night for Pirate Nation,” coach Mike Houston. “So excited for our players, excited for our fans, excited for our institution. This has been the goal since we got here, to get ECU back to winning and back to get into bowl contention and back to winning bowl games.”
McCall, who missed three games with an injury late in the season, played well before the injury. He was 11 of 14 for 75 yards and carried the ball four times for 12 yards. His 25-yard pass to Ivy Turon set up a 1-yard scoring run by Reese White.
“I don’t know the injury,” Coastal Carolina interim coach Chad Staggs said. “He’s walking around the locker room and we had a big embrace right before I came in here. I don’t think it was concussion stuff but I don’t know.”
What he does know is it made an impact.
“I think when you got No. 10 in the ballgame, we’re a little bit better,” Staggs said.
East Carolina quickly extended the lead to 31-14 in the third quarter. Coastal Carolina’s Braydon Bennett fumbled on the first play of the second half and East Carolina’s Jireh Wilson recovered at the Coastal Carolina 27. Six plays later, Ahlers found Jaylen Johnson for a 2-yard touchdown pass. Ahlers had a 14-yard reception on the drive on a pass from C.J. Johnson.
Coastal Carolina answered quickly, moving 79 yards on three plays with White gaining 32 yards on the first two plays and Guess hitting Tyler Roberts in stride on a 47-yard touchdown pass.
East Carolina scored the next 14 points on a 1-yard run by Ahlers and a 15-yard pass from Ahlers to C.J. Johnson. Ahlers capped off his night with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Shane Calhoun and a two-point conversion pass to Mitchell.
Coastal Carolina: Getting started has been an issue for the Chanticleers in the season-ending three-game losing streak. Coastal Carolina was outscored, 75-28. East Carolina had 330 first half yards.
East Carolina: The Pirates are back in the win column in a bowl for the first time since 2013. ECU last played in a bowl game in 2014. The Pirates were scheduled to play in the Military Bowl last year, but the game was canceled a day before kickoff.