It took five full years to play in a bowl game, but East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers made the most of his first appearance and last as a Pirate. Ahlers was named the MVP of the Birmingham Bowl as he led ECU to a 53-29 victory over Coastal Carolina.
Ahlers played five full seasons at ECU, courtesy of an extra year of eligibility for the 2020 COVID season.
It’s hard to imagine somebody making more of his college time and contributing to uplifting a program in dire need of a facelift.
This was ECU’s first bowl appearance since losing to Florida 28-20 in the 2014 Birmingham Bowl. There has to be an asterisk added to this statement since the Pirates earned a berth into the 2021 Military Bowl, but the game was canceled after Boston College pulled out due to COVID issues.
Either way, Ahlers was dynamic in his farewell game with ECU.
He completed 26 of 38 passes for 300 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. Ahlers also rushed for 48 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. In addition, he caught one pass for 14 yards.
And if that wasn’t enough, he showed his versatility by leading the band.
To show how much Ahlers meant to the program, one has to look at the situation it was in upon his arrival. The last winning season was the aforementioned 2014 year when the Pirates went 8-5. The next three years the Pirates went 11-25 and saw Scottie Montgomery get dismissed after a 3-8 start to a season that ended 3-9.
Ahlers entered as a freshman in 2018 and he wasn’t an immediate starter, and the Pirates didn’t turn things around right away.
They were 3-9 during Ahlers’ first year with Montgomery, and then 3-9 and 4-8 in Mike Houston’s first two years.
Then came the 7-5 bowl eligibility season of last year before finishing 8-5 this year.
All along, it was Ahlers who was the catalyst in elevating the program. Ahlers was a local product. ECU is located in Greenville, North Carolina. He attended D.H. Conley High in Greenville. There couldn’t have been a better match.
As a true freshman, he appeared in 10 games, making five starts in 2018. He made his college debut in the second game of the season, a 41-19 win over North Carolina. Reid Herring played the majority at quarterback, but Ahlers rushed for 36 yards and two scores on eight carries. (He also was 0-1 passing).
This year there were some wild games for the Pirates. ECU was involved in six games decided by three points or fewer, going 3-3 in those contests. (The wildest may have been a 47-45 four-overtime win over Memphis in which Ahlers threw for 304 yards and a TD and ran for a score, but the real star was Keaton Mitchell, who rushed for 149 yards and three scores).
Overall, Ahlers finished on a roll, going his last seven games throwing 12 touchdown passes and zero interceptions.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Ahlers plays the position with the mentality of a fullback. A lefthander, Ahlers finished with 13,927 career passing yards and 15,387 total yards, both school and American Athletic Conference records. He set an AAC record for touchdowns responsible for, throwing for 97 scores and rushing for 25 more.
These were video game numbers that he put up and also elevated ECU’s program. The consecutive winning seasons were the first since ECU had three straight above .500 campaigns from 2012 through 2014.
Now it will be interesting to see if Ahlers gets a chance to play in the NFL. With how hard he plays, his leadership, and his athletic ability, one can certainly see him earning an invitation to an NFL camp if he isn’t drafted. He needs a little refinement in the passing game but has all the tools, led by his inner drive, that would make him an NFL candidate in the future.
Regardless of what he does accomplish from here on, Ahlers had a memorable college career, one made even more special by the fact that it was accomplished in his own backyard.