Four wins for a college football team is usually not viewed as a major accomplishment. For East Carolina University’s (4-7, 1-6 AAC) football team, however, a fourth win after a trio of 3-9 seasons is something to cherish. On Saturday, against the University of Connecticut (2-9, 0-7 AAC), the Pirates picked up that fourth win after defeating the Huskies 31-24 in East Hartford.
“We’ve got such a good locker room right now, but if you go 3-9 again, it makes people question,” head coach Mike Houston said via Stephen Igoe of 247sports.com. “We’ve got to make sure the kids keep pushing forward. That’s why four is so significant.”
Favored by multiple scores as they entered Pratt & Whitney Stadium, the Pirates dressed and played junior left guard Cortez Herrin and junior running back Darius Pinnix Jr. on Saturday. Both of those key offensive cogs had missed significant time with injury, but were deemed healthy enough to play against UConn.
For the Pirates, Pinnix’s return could not have come at a better time. Entering the game, the Huskies were allowing over 220 rushing yards per game to opposing offenses, a number that ranked them 124th out of 130 FBS schools.
On the flip side, ECU entered only 10 spots above the Huskies in that statistical category, allowing over 206 yards of offense on the ground per game.
Matchup-wise, that looked to spell trouble for the Pirates as UConn features a dynamic running back in junior Kevin Mensah. Mensah, who began the game with 918 rushing yards on the season. He was largely shut-down by the Pirates’ defense on Saturday, a testament to the play of their defensive line and linebacker corps.
Despite just 75 yards on 20 carries out of Mensah, however, redshirt freshman quarterback Jack Zergiotis had himself a career-day, passing for 418 yards on 21 completions with three touchdowns.
Down 17-7 at halftime, the Huskies and Zergiotis shifted to another gear. Having amassed only 198 total yards of offense in the opening half, a four-play, 75-yard drive greeted the Pirates’ defense to begin the closing half. On back-to-back plays, Zergiotis found wide-open receivers on blown coverages by ECU’s defense, culminating in a 20-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Jay Rose.
For the Huskies, it was their second opening possession touchdown drive of the day. On its first offensive play from scrimmage in the first quarter, Zergiotis found freshman wide receiver Cam Ross on a 40-yard catch-and-run that granted the Huskies their only score of the half.
After going silent following that touchdown to open the game, the Huskies were able to hang around long enough to make Saturday’s contest interesting.
Pinnix’s second rushing touchdown of the day gave the Pirates a 24-14 lead with 10:31 left in the third quarter and capped off an eight-play, 73-yard drive in response to UConn’s score.
A chance to make it a three-score game, however, was neglected as junior kicker Jake Verity pushed a field goal attempt just wide right on ECU’s very next drive. Verity, who owns the ECU record for most field goals in a season single, would have given the Pirates a 27-14 advantage but instead allowed UConn to take-over at its own 29-yard line.
While ECU was unable to capitalize on its 11-play drive, the Huskies cut the lead to 24-17 with a 10-play possession spanning 62 yards. A sack in the red zone by senior defensive end Kendall Futrell on second and goal perhaps prevented a touchdown and pushed him into double-digit sacks on the season.
As the third quarter closed and the fourth opened, the stakes heightened when Zergiotis found Ross streaking down the middle of the field. Having beat sophomore safety Daniel Charles for the second time, Ross caught the pass and ran 94 yards to the end zone, tying the game at 24 after an extra point.
Following the long pass play, the Huskies were presented with ample opportunity to take the lead. Sophomore defensive back Keyshawn Paul recorded his first career interception, picking off ECU sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers which gave UConn field position at the Pirates’ 34-yard line.
A stout defensive stand later, however, the Pirates were getting the ball back after a missed go-ahead 50-yard field goal.
With the opportunity to take over at their own 32, ECU ripped off its best and most critical drive of the contest. While put into the position to win the game on the left arm of Ahlers, the game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter came on the legs of Pinnix.
On the evening, Pinnix rushed 27 times (a career-high) but established a 100-yard game with rushes of 10 and 16 yards on the Pirates’ final true offensive possession. The only pass play of note on that drive went to redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Snead. A nine-yard play, Snead’s effort set ECU up at the two-yard line and allowed Ahlers to punch it in with his legs.
“Anytime you’re a quarterback, you’ve got to be able (to) forget the play, good or bad,” Ahlers said via Igoe. “I knew the team was going to need me. I knew I was going to do whatever I had to do to win this ball game, and that’s what we did.”
Nine plays is what it took for the Pirates’ offense to take the lead, but it was a goal-line effort by the defense that kept the Huskies from tying the game late.
Driving for their own 25-yard line, the Huskies used pass plays of 31 and 23 yards to to flip field position and near the red zone. A false start penalty, the Huskies’ 10th flag of the day, however, turned a second and eight play from ECU’s 19 into a second and 13 situation.
Pushed to fourth down and four, UConn pulled off the conversion with a six-yard pass, moving the offense inside ECU’s 10-yard line. Up against the clock now just as much as the Pirates’ defense, Zergiotis fired back-to-back incomplete passes on second and third and goal.
The latter of those plays, an end zone shot, was broken up on a nifty play by freshman cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian. That play, while it likely saved a touchdown, was not the one that sealed Saturday’s contest for the Pirates.
That came on the very next play, a fourth and goal snap from ECU’s five-yard line. Looking for his top reciever, Zergiotis was picked by senior cornerback Colby Gore at the goal-line, handing the victory to the Pirates in dramatic fashion.
“We decided to play coverage instead of pressure,” Houston said via Igoe. “We had been showing a lot of pressure. The kids did a good job. They weren’t panicked. We worked on a good bit in the red zone this week in practice and Colby made a great play. I thought their quarterback panicked a little bit.”
Without an outstanding offensive effort for the third straight game, however, Gore’s interception would likely have never materialized.
Ahlers, who racked up over 1,000 yards passing combined in the last two games, started slow but ended up with a very nice stat line.
Not as sharp at times compared to two weeks ago against Southern Methodist University (9-2, 5-2 AAC), Ahlers fired two interceptions, including the aforementioned one late in the fourth quarter. While neither turnover came back to bite the young quarterback, that had been a part of his play he had seemingly cleaned up of late.
Nevertheless, Ahlers turned in a great game, throwing for 374 yards on 34 completions with one touchdown and two picks. The sophomore also added a score with his legs and finished with 22 yards on the ground.
Catching almost half his passes, Snead took a shot at the record books once again, hauling in 16 catches for 126 yards on the evening. Two weeks after making 19 receptions to set an NCAA record for the season, Snead used a game-high 19 targets to tie with Justin Hardy for fifth on ECU’s all-time single game reception list.
With his record-setting game against SMU, however, Snead now owns two spots in the top-five and has recorded 35 passes for 366 yards in his last pair of games.
While the Pirates threw the ball 50 times, they also ran it 36 times, racking up 135 yards on the ground and three scores. Pinnix, as mentioned above, accounted for two of those, punching the football into the end zone from one and three yards.
In all, the Pirates rode solid efforts from Ahlers, Pinnix and Snead to over 500 yards of offense for the third consecutive game, the only difference this time was the outcome.
Firmly grasping their fourth win of the season, the Pirates will return to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday to wrap-up their season. Kickoff between ECU and the University of Tulsa (3-7, 1-5 AAC) is slated for noon as the Pirates will celebrate their seniors with Senior Day festivities.