Case Keenum, Timmy Chang, Landry Jones, Graham Harrell, Ty Detmer, Kellen Moore, Baker Mayfield, Luke Falk, Colt Brennan, and Rakeem Cato occupy the top 10 spots on the FBS all-time passing yards list.
Sitting in the No. 11 position is East Carolina senior gunslinger Holton Ahlers — the highest-ranked active quarterback in the category. By that metric alone, it is evident Ahlers enjoyed a storied and successful career in purple and gold, and the quarterback finally rode off into the sunset Tuesday night in Birmingham.
Ahlers delivered a Birmingham Bowl record five touchdown passes in a 300-yard outing to fend off Coastal Carolina, 53-29, and clinch East Carolina’s winningest season since 2014. The fifth-year senior concluded his time as a Pirate with MVP honors for the game and leaves the collegiate level with an astounding 13,927 passing yards and 97 touchdown strikes.
“We all saw what we expected, and that’s the biggest credit you can give him,” East Carolina head coach Mike Houston said of Ahlers. “When he decided to come back, he came back for a reason. He’s had a senior year that will go down in the record books and to cap it off with not only getting us back to bowl season, but with a bowl win and a performance like that — that’s what we’ve come to expect.”
Not all quarterbacks in this matchup experienced the same storybook sendoff as Ahlers. Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall still has more college football left in the tank, but the Birmingham Bowl represented the three-time Sun Belt Player of the Year’s final game as a Chanticleer. Despite announcing intent to enter the transfer portal, McCall decided to finish what he started while wearing the black and teal. He displayed his typical efficiency by completing 10-of-12 passes and demonstrated his mobility by scrambling for a 9-yard rushing touchdown.
That touchdown, which catapulted Coastal Carolina out of a 10-0 deficit and into a 14-10 lead, was McCall’s final play in a Chanticleer uniform. He subsequently left the game with an undisclosed upper body injury and never returned, causing Coastal Carolina to turn to Jarrett Guest, and eventually, Bryce Archie for the remainder of the contest.
“I think when you’ve got No. 10 in the ballgame, we’re a little bit better,” Coastal Carolina interim head coach Chad Staggs said. “Jarrett came in and threw a touchdown pass, and it was really the turnovers there. If you don’t have the turnovers in that point of the game, no matter which one was quarterback... we’re not going to make excuses. Our job as coaches is to coach them, and their job is the next man up. It was tough, but we still expected to win the ballgame.”
East Carolina stepped up on both sides of the ball after McCall’s untimely departure, scoring three unanswered touchdowns to widen its advantage to 31-14 in the early third quarter. Offensively, Ahlers distributed the ball evenly to his top three receivers C.J. Johnson, Jaylen Johnson, and Isaiah Winstead, and all three corralled at least one touchdown reception on 60+ yards of production in the veteran quarterback’s finale.
“Any time you have one final game and a month to prepare for it, I better have went out there and played good,” Ahlers said. “We had a really good gameplan to get some quick throws early to get the receivers going. They did a really good job. Offensive line was blocking their tail off... It was a total team win tonight. I couldn’t imagine going out a better way.”
The Pirate offense also received impressive contributions from running back Keaton Mitchell, who pitched in 127 rushing yards in the victory. Mitchell has a claim to the title of fastest running back in college football and that lethal degree of speed was showcased from the get-go with 93 yards in the first quarter alone.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Pirates controlled the line of scrimmage with four sacks while stifling Coastal Carolina’s rushing offense to 3.3 yards per carry. East Carolina sent a bevy of safety blitzes spearheaded by Gerard Stringer, and the senior rose to stardom on the Pirates’ grandest stage of the season. Stringer led all ECU defenders in the tackling department and forced two fumbles in the 24-point triumph. One of those fumbles was a pivotal strip sack to stall a Chanticleer drive in the late third quarter of a 10-point game. Stringer not only forced the fumble, but he recovered the loose remains to complete the trifecta and set up a Pirate scoring drive.
“It’s a great way to go out,” Stringer said. “I put my heart into this program and I put my heart into this last game, so to get that, that’s amazing.”
Coastal Carolina earned its second touchdown on McCall’s final play at the 8:29 mark of the second quarter, but the Chanticleers only crossed the goal line two additional times the rest of the night. Guest finished 6-for-11 with 136 passing yards as the second-string quarterback. He delivered a 47-yard dime to Tyler Roberts in the third quarter to thin the margin, but the offense simply couldn’t keep up with East Carolina due to rampant fumbling. Coastal Carolina coughed the ball up three times in the second half to a Pirate squad which entered the night ranked ninth nationally in turnover margin.
“I thought the kids fought all night long,” Houston said of Coastal Carolina. “I know the score doesn’t look like that, but that’s a good football team. They’re a 9-win football team and they’ve been the class of the Sun Belt the last three years. It certainly hurt losing (McCall) but they still continued to play and compete and play very well.”
In the Birmingham Bowl, the Chanticleers operated without head coach Jamey Chadwell for the first time since 2018, after the architect of the program’s best three-year stretch in history departed for the Liberty opening earlier in December. After a scorching hot start, Coastal Carolina finished its 2022 campaign on a 3-game losing streak to stamp a 9-4 record into the history books. When the team kicks off its 2023 season, former NC State head coach Tim Beck will serve as new frontman, hoping to sustain the run of dominance the Chanticleers witnessed in the early 2020s.
“I think you’ll look back on it several years down the road and you’ll truly grasp what was done, but I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve done,” said Staggs, whose future with the program is undetermined. “I wish we hadn’t left on a three-game losing streak and me as head coach of the last one, but that three-year run, it’s hard to say. When you go recruiting around the country, Coastal’s a national name now. To do that for a school and enrollment and all that kind of stuff for the school, I’m watching people wear Coastal gear all over the place in Conway and Myrtle Beach now. It’s a lot different than in 2019.”
A bowl-starved East Carolina participated in its first bowl in eight years, and the team lived up to the moment by earning its first bowl victory since 2013. Though the Pirates move forward without a program icon in Ahlers, Tuesday night was an unforgettable one for East Carolina football — especially for the man who donned the No. 12 uniform for the last five years.
“I’m just gonna sleep in my uniform — I don't want to take it off yet,” Ahlers said. “Being a kid from Greenville and experiencing that out there, that’s all I ever wanted, just to bring this university and this football program back. These fans certainly deserve it. The whole stadium on our side was just purple and gold. It’s a night I’ll remember forever.”