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2022 Week 1 Preview: NC State Wolfpack @ East Carolina Pirates

Holton Ahlers and the Pirates host a ranked opponent with visions of building on last year’s success.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Game notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, September 3 at 12:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN
  • Location: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium — Greenville, NC
  • Spread: NC State (-11.5)
  • ESPN FPI: NC State has 74.8% chance to win
  • All-time series: NC State leads, 18-13
  • Last meeting: NC State 34, East Carolina 6 — August 31, 2019
  • Current streak: NC State, 2 (2018-19)

Setting the scene

There was a time when the East Carolina Pirates used to make the ACC walk the plank every September. From 2013 to 2016, East Carolina tackled six consecutive ACC opponents — North Carolina twice, Virginia Tech twice, and NC State twice. But suddenly, the Pirates’ ACC dominance subsided in 2016 after toppling the Wolfpack 33-30 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. They search for their first win over the conference since that day.

The Pirates ditched their winning ways for a while, up until last season when the program rebounded to a 7-5 record. ECU hopes to sustain that rise and return to its ACC-feasting glory days, but the opponent coming into town is no slouch.

This NC State team checks into the initial AP Poll for the first time since 2003. Ranked at No. 13 in the country, the Wolfpack tie their program record with the 1975 team for highest preseason ranking ever. After posting a 9-3 standing in 2021, Dave Doeren’s squad looks to attain double-digit wins for the first time in 20 years and crash the New Year’s Six as the ACC Atlantic Division’s biggest threat to Clemson.

NC State Wolfpack outlook

NC State finished No. 20 in the final AP Poll in 2021. What are the factors that moved the Wolfpack up seven spots in the 2022 preseason rankings?

For starters, the team returns quarterback Devin Leary who unquestionably rose to status as of the elite quarterbacks in the FBS last season. Leary boasted an incredible touchdown-to-interception ratio of 35-to-5, remaining mistake-free while delivering over 300 yards in half of his outings. The star quarterback comes with reliable targets in the receiving corps, including Thayer Thomas who dominated as a short-yardage and red zone threat with 596 yards and eight touchdowns on 51 catches last year, and Devin Carter, a 6’3” standout whose compilation of circus catches made him a frequent highlight reel sensation.

NCAA Football: Louisville at North Carolina State
Devin Carter tallied career-bests 566 yards and eight touchdowns in 2021, showing his downfield presence with an average of 17.9 yards per catch.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Leary and his receiving corps concocted a top 30 scoring offense in Raleigh for the first time since 2009, and the passing attack was the highlight by fielding top 20 production on a national level. There should be ample tight end usage as well with viable options Trent Pennix and Christopher Toudle returning after combining for 35 receptions and seven touchdowns in 2021.

There will have to be some reshuffling in the running game though as Ricky Person Jr. and Zonovan Knight are in the midst of working toward their NFL dreams. Those two halfbacks combined to produce 90.7 percent of NC State’s rushing total last year, so the Wolfpack must satisfy major massive vacancies in the backfield. Jordan Houston is assumed to take over as the new primary rushing threat after posting 83 yards on 20 attempts during his sophomore season. Even with a lack of experience, NC State hopes it won’t miss a beat in the run game while operating behind an established offensive line returning four starters.

The No. 13 preseason ranking is also supported by the returning talent on the defensive side of the ball. The Wolfpack allowed a hair under 20 points per game, checking in at 14th in the country in scoring defense. The unit proved equally decent in stifling the run and containing the pass, and the linebacking corps did a great job in contributing to both facets of the game.

Outside linebacker Drake Thomas is back in the lineup after attaining First Team All-ACC status with team-highs in tackles (99), tackles for loss (13.5), and sacks (6.0) last fall. The players who ranked second and third in the sack department are gone, but defensive end Devin Vann should further expand his backfield presence after a breakout redshirt freshman campaign which saw four sacks.

Two other First Team All-ACC talents remain in the unit alongside Thomas. At nose tackle in Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 defense is Cory Durden, whose 6’4”, 305 pound frame causes plenty of problems for opposing offensive linemen, thus making the Wolfpack’s pass rush more effective. All-conference status also extends to the secondary where free safety Tanner Ingle looks to thrive in his versatile role as a run stopper and centerfielder, gathering 82 tackles and breaking up four passes a year ago.

East Carolina Pirates outlook

East Carolina waited seven years for bowl eligibility, and the Pirates finally attained that elusive sixth win after besting Memphis in an overtime thriller last November. However, the Pirates never reaped the reward of the Military Bowl in which they were schedule to participate.

Positive COVID-19 cases erupted within the Boston College locker room in late December and axed ECU’s first bowl opportunity since 2014. But the Pirates won’t have to wait long to play another ACC opponent.

Mike Houston’s team looks to capitalize on homefield advantage against a talented NC State group in a venue where they pieced together a 4-2 record last season. The estimated 50,000 fans in attendance Saturday will be well-acquainted with quarterback Holton Ahlers, who enters his fifth season as ECU’s primary starter.

Ahlers surpassed the 3,000-yard passing mark for his second time as a Pirate last fall, complemented by a career-high completion percentage. The senior quarterback isn’t afraid to take several deep shots per contest, and by season’s end, he is expected to surpass Shane Carden as the program’s all-time passing leader (currently a 1,772-yard gap between the two).

The veteran quarterback led the Pirates to the 24th best passing attack in the country, but he loses Tyler Snead, the primary home run hitter on that unit which made them explosive. Still, incumbent wide receiver C.J. Johnson is expected to make a splash from the slot in Snead’s absence after amassing 1,833 yards in three seasons in purple and gold. Outside of Johnson, the main cast of characters in the receiving corps are transfers. Jaylen Johnson is expected to step into a hefty role after winning a national championship at Georgia in January, while the 6’4” Isaiah Winstead assumes the other starting wideout role. All three aforementioned receivers are 6’2” and taller, allowing ECU to exhibit a considerable size advantage over most opposing secondaries.

One aspect of ECU’s offense which is expected to reign supreme in the AAC is the rushing attack. The Pirates return a talented one-two punch in the backfield with Keaton Mitchell and Rahjai Harris. Mitchell averaged 6.5 yards per carry last year en route to a 1,132-yard season to rank second in the conference. Harris served as the team-lead in 2020 and thrived nicely in a second-fiddle role last year with 579 yards and four touchdowns. Mitchell provides a commendable degree of speed while Harris’ power comes in handy in short yardage situations.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at East Carolina
Keaton Mitchell surpassed the 100-yard mark in four games last year, maxing out at 222 in a blowout win over Tulane.
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Exhibiting strong offenses was never the issue during ECU’s extended stretch of losing seasons, but the team ranked in the 100s in scoring defense every year from 2016 to 2020. Last year, that all changed when defensive-minded head coach Houston and second-year coordinator Blake Harrell transformed the unit from the cellar to the middle-of-the-pack. The effects could not be understated, and ECU yielded just 26.2 points per game, allowing under 40 points every game in the season for the first time since the 2009 C-USA champion squad.

The strength of this unit lies within the linebacking corps where inside backers Myles Berry and Xavier Smith excel as run stoppers. There wasn’t really a premier pass rusher on this team last year, so the Pirates will hope for returning edge defenders Immanuel Hickman and Jeremy Lewis to step up in order to provide pressure on Leary and his excellent pocket presence.

The biggest losses on defense reside within the secondary. All-American cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian intercepted five passes and broke up an additional 16 in 2021 while safety Warren Saba snagged four picks. Both of those faces are gone, so the unit will rely heavily on cornerback Malik Fleming (nine pass breakups in 2021) to counter NC State’s aerial attack.


East Carolina’s defense is vastly improved, and that was demonstrated by the unit’s success in limiting every opponent to under 40 points last year. NC State will definitely provide a challenge out of the gate with one of the FBS’s best quarterbacks in Devin Leary, protected by a sturdy offensive line, and supported by a talented receiving corps. With the lack of Ja’Quan McMillian and Warren Saba in the secondary, containing the air may be much more difficult for the Pirates this year.

Holton Ahlers, Keaton Mitchell and ECU’s offensive weapons should notch considerable offensive production in front of their home fans, but they’ll be tested to a great extent by Drake Thomas and a talented pass rush. The Pirates have to worry about more than Thomas though, as there exists first team all-conference talent at all three levels in NC State’s defense. Given the prowess on both sides of the ball, this Wolfpack team winds up providing rationale for its No. 13 ranking in the end, coasting past ECU in the second half.

Prediction: NC State 42, East Carolina 23