GREENVILLE, N.C. – East Carolina senior quarterback Holton Ahlers knows many tense moments lie ahead this season, especially with American Athletic Conference play beginning next week. So, he savored the opportunity Saturday evening to spend the bulk of the final quarter of a 49-10 win over visitor Campbell watching from the sidelines of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

Before turning over the reins to backup Mason Garcia and a host of other reserves, Ahlers turned in a sensational performance that included three passing touchdowns, one rushing score and a few more records to his collection, including most total yards in school history and passing yards in the AAC.

“Heck yeah it was,” Ahlers said of taking the rest of the night off after Rahjai Harris scored on a 1-yard run with 11:11 to go, the fourth consecutive scoring drive of the half and sixth in a row overall as ECU erased an early 10-7 deficit. “I think my body will appreciate it a little bit tomorrow, too.

“It was cool to see (Mason) go out there. He’s been great. Obviously, a lot of us see him as the future of the program. He’s a super-talented kid. He just needs experience.”

Experience is what Ahlers brings now and what has been the centerpiece of elevating Houston’s program. The fourth-year coach remembers meeting Ahlers at his introductory press conference and maintained his confidence in the Greenville product through highs and lows.

“He’s one of the first kids I met; he was sitting on the first row when I was introduced to the team,” Houston said. “He’s been the steady constant since I’ve been here. He’s a great leader in the locker room, he’s a phenomenal role model in the community; he’s a role model to my two sons. He’s a pleasure to be around every single day. You couldn’t ask for someone to be more than what he’s been.”

With at least nine more games to play, Ahlers already owns a bevy of school and AAC milestones, which he increased on a pleasant Saturday night before a home crowd of 43,036. Ahlers picked apart the Camels by completing 17 of 20 passes for 263 yards as the Pirates (2-1) piled more than 500 total yards for the second-straight week, finishing with 572.

His 12,332 total yards vaults him past Shane Carden for first in school history, and he needs just 86 yards to supplant Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder (12,418) at the top of the AAC list. Ahlers also took over first in AAC career passing yards with (11,019), passing Tulsa’s Dane Evans (10,782). He already holds AAC marks for passing attempts (1,934) and completions (879).

The three touchdowns against Campbell give the left-hander 22 for his career, just one behind Carden on the school’s list.

Ahlers said the records are gratifying, especially since they contribute to helping rebuild the program.

“It means a lot,” he said. “Being from Greenville, growing up here and obviously playing quarterback here has been a dream come true for me. The team that we’ve got this year is going to be really special. There’s going to be a couple of records broken and stuff like that, but I’m just going to focus on the main thing, and that’s going to keep winning every single game and going 1-0 each week. As these records come, it will be pretty cool to look back on. But I’m just super blessed to be in the situation I’m in. It says my name on it, but there’s a million people that put in a lot of hard work for my name to go there.”

Houston said Ahlers deserves the recognition, not only for his performance on the field but for his leadership.

“I’m very, very proud of him,” Houston said. “He had a phenomenal night tonight.

“I’ve coached a lot of guys over the years, and he’s one of the more enjoyable players I’ve ever had,” Houston added. “I just respect him so much for the way he plays. He’s a tough freaking kid. He’s a great player, and he’s just a phenomenal human being. I’m blessed that God has allowed me to have a few years with him, and I’m going to enjoy every day I’ve got with him until he’s done.”

Houston also is enjoying having speedster Keaton Mitchell among his offensive weapons. The sophomore from McDonough, Ga., torched the Camels for 185 yards on 13 carries, collecting his eighth career 100-yard game. Mitchell scored on an 18-yard sprint after Campbell grabbed an early 3-0 lead then gained 70 yards on five carries, including a 42-yard dash, to set up a 1-yard pass from Ahlers to Ryan Jones for a 14-10 lead.

The Pirates reeled off 42 consecutive points after the Camels scored on their first two possessions. Campbell, led by elusive quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams, piled up 403 yards but failed to score on their last nine possessions. Chance Bates ended one threat with an interception. Another threat ended with a missed field goal.

Williams completed 23 of 38 passes for 300 yards, including a 61-yarder to Jalen Kelsey on a short hitch route.

“I wish we hadn’t missed that tackle on the hitch route that gave them the long touchdown, but I thought we responded and played well in the second half,” Houston said. “That was good to see.”

ECU’s offense also responded by scoring on its final two possessions of the first half and first four of the second. Two of those scores came on fade patterns to the right front corner of the end zone, a 23-yarder to C.J. Johnson and a 28-yarder to Jalen Johnson on a fourth-down play.

“I thought Jalen had a great matchup, and Holton knew right where he was,” Houston said. “It was really good to see us win those one-on-one matchups down the field because we’re going to have to throughout the year this year.”

That includes next week in the fourth-straight home game and AAC opener against Navy.
“We’ve got a good Navy ballclub coming in here next week,” Houston said. “They’ve had two weeks to get ready for us. We’re going to have to play our best ball of the year to have a shot.”