A cold, rainy Saturday morning in Greenville, North Carolina was made no better by the East Carolina University (4-9, 1-7 AAC) football team inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Despite a slow start to the afternoon, the University of Tulsa Golden Hurricane (4-8, 2-6 AAC) racked up over 660 yards of total offense, including 338 on the ground in a 49-24 win over the Pirates.
“Disappointing end to this first season together,” Mike Houston said following the game. “It’s disappointing because we have higher expectations for our program than this and that is a positive. We expect to be able to go out and play games at a very, very high level and be able to win any given Saturday. Because of those expectations that we have created within the program, days like today are very disappointing.”
Entering the contest, both squads had struggled to stop the run. In 11 games prior to Saturday, both ECU and Tulsa had allowed over 195 rushing yards per game, ranking them in the bottom-third of the FBS rankings.
Coming off a trio of 500-plus yard offensive performances, however, ECU possessed the necessary momentum to roll into 2020 on a high note.
Unfortunately for the home team, the shaky defensive play that has often plagued the Pirates followed them back home to Dowdy-Ficklen after three weeks away. Despite racking up 1,407 passing yards in its three games prior to Saturday afternoon, ECU’s defensive unit yielded a combined 1,625 yards of offense to opposing teams, resulting in a lackluster 1-2 record over that span.
While all three of those games were close due to the Pirates’ outstanding offensive performances, Saturday’s Senior Day proved to be the outlier.
Only minutes after honoring their 16 seniors pregame, the Pirates were going three-and-out and punting back to the Golden Hurricane, a theme that would develop throughout the ensuing 60 minutes.
On six of its first seven drives, ECU’s drives ended with a punt, the only exception being a 51-yard field goal by junior kicker Jake Verity with five minutes left in the opening quarter. Those six drives lasted a combined 28 plays and spanned only 123 yards, putting ECU into the halftime locker room with less than 200 yards of total offense.
Like ECU, the Golden Hurricane began the game on the slow side, punting on back-to-back possessions after turning the ball over on downs inside the red zone to begin their day. The difference on Saturday resided in Tulsa’s ability to break out of that offensive slump, a revelation helped along by miscommunications and an overall leaky ECU defensive unit.
While the Pirates yielded a 64-yard rush to junior Tulsa running back Shamari Brooks on the Golden Hurricane’s opening drive, a defensive stand kept the visiting squad off the board. Following that, however, Tulsa’s big plays began yielding points, something the Pirates could not overcome or match.
In response to ECU’s field goal, Tulsa used a 66-yard touchdown pass from the right arm of junior quarterback Zach Smith to vault back into the lead. Sophomore wide receiver Sam Crawford Jr., the recipient of Smith’s pass, found himself wide open down the sideline, making for an easy catch-and-run into the end zone.
That play only opened the floodgates for Tulsa’s big play ability. Following their first touchdown drive of the game, the Golden Hurricane found the promised land on back-to-back occasions on the back of long passes.
Junior wide receiver Keylon Stokes and freshman tight end James Palmer both caught 29-yard passes, one on each drive. Stokes’ resulted in Smith’s second touchdown pass of the game, a number that was pushed to three and eventually five on the afternoon.
On just two drives in the second quarter, Tulsa racked up three plays of at least 25 yards as they patched together drives of six plays, 62 yards and 10 plays, 92 yards.
“Too many mistakes on the defensive side of the football that resulted in explosive plays,” Houston said. “Those are things you can’t have. It’s something we’ve worked very hard to try to correct all throughout the year this year and it’s something we have to get fixed.”
At halftime, Tulsa found themselves firmly in control, leading 21-3. Already with 381 total yards of offense, Smith had thrown three touchdowns and Brooks was already trending over 100 yards on the ground.
Conversely, ECU was sporting 199 yards of offense, including a 12-of-24 effort from sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers for 146 yards and zero touchdowns.
Despite the hole they had dug for themselves, the Pirates were presented with an opportunity to climb back into the ball game. On third down and long after taking the second half opening kickoff, Smith forced a ball into tight man-to-man coverage. Junior safety Davondre Robinson, for the second straight game, came down with the interception, giving the Pirates the ball at midfield.
ECU’s chance to get back into the game, however, evaporated quickly when freshman wide receiver Jsi Hatfield fumbled the football, allowing the Golden Hurricane to take the ball back deep in Pirate territory after a 21-yard return.
“Offensively, we just couldn’t find a rhythm there in the first half. We made some plays here and there and we did finally put some points on the board in the second half,” Houston said. “But it’s very much a complementary game, offense, defense and special teams, all three have to play together and we just weren’t able to do that today.”
In that moment, all the momentum was shifted back in Tulsa’s favor, something they seized with scoring drives on back-to-back possessions. While the Pirates finally found the end zone on their 10th drive of the contest, Tulsa never relented, driving the score to 35-10 with two, third quarter touchdowns.
That kicked off a string of four straight touchdown drives by the Golden Hurricane’s offense as Tulsa failed to go three-and-out on the afternoon.
In vain, ECU found the end zone on 35-yard and 34-yard touchdowns in the fourth quarter, somewhat tightening the game up late. With the latter of those scores, the 34-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Blake Proehl with under three minutes left in the game, Ahlers ensured he would rack up at least 300 passing yards for the four straight contest.
All told, Ahlers finished with a nice line, one that included 308 yards on 27 completions and three touchdowns. He failed to turn the ball over and made a 100-yard receiver out of freshman C.J. Johnson while Proehl finished with 89 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches.
The real sticking point, for both sides of the ball, however, came in the rushing department. Offensively, the Pirates netted only 75 yards on the ground on 29 attempts (2.6 yards per rush). At the same time, ECU’s defense yielded 338 rushing yards to Tulsa, including 202 to Brooks on 16 carries.
That number vaulted Brooks over 1,000 yards on the season and ensured he and junior running back Corey Taylor II would finish the season with over 4,100 combined career yards.
Rushing was not the only lacking area for the Pirates’ defense on Saturday. Smith set a new career-high with five touchdown passes and finished the day with 331 yards on 21 completions. While he did turn the ball over once, Tulsa was not hampered by the negative play but rather gained field position after turning ECU over one play later.
At the end of the day, allowing a season-high 669 yards is not a preferred way to end the first season of the Houston-era in Greenville. Nevertheless, this is where the Pirates find themselves as recruiting season kicks into full gear for Houston and his coaching staff.
Despite the final outcome on Saturday, the Pirates, especially the seniors, can hang their hat on getting this program its fourth win in a season for the first time since 2015.
“Tuesday is the one-year mark of when I was hired,” Houston said. “A year ago Tuesday, I was hired to take over the program. Is it in better shape than it was a year ago? Yes. At the same time, are we where we want to be? Not even close. We have very high expectations for East Carolina football.”