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Holten Ahlers and CJ Johnson steals show as ECU beats USF in Boca Raton

The Holten Ahlers and CJ Johnson connection was alive and well in ECU’s 48-28 victory over USC.

Bob Markey

Heading into game time, not much felt “normal” about this AAC matchup between South Florida (1-4, 0-1 AAC) and East Carolina (3-2, 1-0 AAC).

Not only was the game relocated to Boca Raton, Fla. due to Hurricane Ian but the reminders of the “neutral site” were clear. The second deck seats spelled a Florida Atlantic logo and the banners across the stadium served as a constant reminder that nothing about this neutral site conference game was ‘familiar’.

In fact, it wasn’t until ECU quarterback Holten Ahlers took the field that things began to feel normal.

While it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise — Ahlers is one of the conference’s best quarterbacks — the senior quarterback had that dawg in him and was the best player on the field in the Pirates’ 48-28 victory over USF.

From the opening snap, Ahlers picked apart the USF defense with surgical precision, looking more like a surgeon than a quarterback. While some guys were playing football, he was playing Madden.

To open up the game, Ahlers completed his first three passes, including a 60-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver C.J. Johnson to open up the scoring.

The connection of Ahlers to Johnson was alive and well from the opening snap and continued up until the end of the game, with the pair connecting seven total times.

In the second quarter, Ahlers found Johnson at about midfield who broke multiple tackling attempts by USF defenders and found the end zone for a 74-yard touchdown and Johnson’s second receiving touchdown of the game.

According to Ahlers, that play was originally called as a run play but Ahlers saw a coverage matchup that he liked and checked out of the original play call.

“It was a run play and he was supposed to be blocking and I saw cover 0 — they were blitzing to stop the run with no help,” Ahlers explained. “So, I checked to my fade on that and checked the line of scrimmage out of the run and threw the pass to him and obviously, it worked out.”

With his 6-foot-2, 222-pound frame, Johnson is one of the better wide receivers in one-on-one matchups and he’s capable of beating defenses in a variety of ways, which was something we saw throughout the game.

“Anytime you got a guy like that who’s so talented with one-on-one coverage, there’s a lot of different routes that you can run,” Ahlers said. “And he’s so good, has really good ball skills to go out there and make some plays.”

East Carolina’s head coach Mike Houston echoed similar sentiments about Johnson’s ability in one-on-one coverage.

“I would take CJ [Johnson] against anyone in one-on-one coverage,” Houston said. “He’s a big body, he has great body control, has really strong hands. Just the combination of all those things. When you get into those 50-50 balls, he’s going to win most of them.”

ECU WR C.J. Johnson (5) takes a pass to the end zone for a touchdown.
Bob Markey

The Ahlers-Johnson connection was one that we saw throughout the first half, as the two were telepathic throughout the night.

Later in the second, Ahlers connected with Johnson in the corner of the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown which made the score 41-7. In total, Ahlers and Johnson connected five times in the first half for 176 yards and three touchdowns.

For Johnson, the performance came after an incredibly hard week, as Johnson’s grandmother passed away earlier in the week.

“He’s had a tough week, his family has had a tough couple of weeks,” Houston said. “I’m proud of him. I’m proud of how he’s handled everything. It’s not easy, there’s a lot of emotion that came pouring out of him. He’s a good kid, it’s great to see him have that day.”

Houston continued: “I told him, ‘you’re grandma, she’s celebrating up in heaven right now looking down on you.’ And that’s something that kind of helps him.”

Ahlers finished the first half completing 20 of his 26 passes for 352 passing yards and five touchdowns, connecting with wide receiver Isaiah Winstead and tight end Ryan Jones for touchdowns of 22 and 21 yards.

“I feel like this was definitely that breakout passing game for him but we definitely have stuff to build on,” Jones said.

Despite the strong first half from Ahlers’ golden arm, the senior wasn’t particularly done firing on all cylinders.

While it wasn’t as high-powered in the final two quarters — ECU was outscored 21-7 in the second half — Ahlers still found the end zone, connecting with Johnson again for a 9-yard touchdown pass that made the score 48-21.

Overall, Ahlers finished the game completing 31 of his 41 passes for 465 yards and six passing touchdowns. The six passing touchdowns tie a school record that is conveniently held by Ahlers, who threw for the same amount against SMU in 2019.

“Holten is a great quarterback,” said ECU safety Julius Wood. “He keys blitzes and knows when people are blitzing ... He’s an amazing quarterback and we’re ready to ride.”

Johnson finished the night with 7 receptions for 197 yards and 4 receiving touchdowns, which also ties a school record held by Walter Wilson, who accomplished the feat back in 1987.

For the Ahlers and Johnson connection, it was something the two have seen before, multiple times.

“We’ve been playing ball together since we were probably 13, 14 years old,” Ahlers said. “We can kind of just look at each other and know what we’re thinking.”

ECU’s strong game through the air shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. USF spent a majority of the game in man-to-man coverage and the Pirates' pass catchers were able to create separation in their one-on-one matchups.

“We knew we were going to get a lot of man coverage and so with that man coverage, you get a lot of one-on-one matchups,” Houston said. “And I thought we did a great job of taking advantage of those.”

ECU will continue its season on Oct. 8 with a road matchup against Tulane.