By Nathan Summers
Friday, September 6, 2013
East Carolina was in the black in every sense on Thursday night.
The Pirate football team, clad in all black uniforms and surrounded by a field and a fanbase trimmed in black, kept Florida Atlantic out of the end zone for nearly 60 minutes while the ECU offense methodically churned out four touchdowns on its way to a comfortable 31-13 victory in both team’s Conference USA openers.
The Pirates (2-0, 1-0 C-USA) yielded a couple of first half field goals to the Owls (0-2, 0-1), then blackballed them entirely in the second half until a meaningless William Dukes touchdown catch with 1:03 left in the game. The ECU defense plugged away all night, forcing three Owl turnovers that translated into 10 Pirate points.
On the other side of the ball, junior ECU passer Shane Carden was a picture of efficiency, throwing for a modest 191 yards but connecting on a pair of touchdowns in an interception-free performance. Senior tailback Vintavious Cooper fell five yards shy of chalking up his first 100-yard rushing game of the season with 95 and a touchdown on 20 totes, and also made a team-high five receptions for 49 yards.
“We had planned on it since June, anticipating this short week, and it was really a man-up effort by our group,” ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill said of the Pirates’ second straight win to open the season, a victory that improved ECU’s record to 4-7 on Thursday nights in the modern era. “(FAU) is a really talented football team and I was proud of our group. All wins are big, but winning this first one in conference is very big.”
Unlike a week ago against Old Dominion, when the Pirates found themselves in a four-point game in the fourth quarter, ECU built on its halftime lead and more importantly was unrelenting on defense. The Pirates got interceptions from linebacker Maurice Falls and cornerback Josh Hawkins, and senior safety Damon Magazu recovered a fumble.
Also for the Pirate defense, linebackers Brandon Williams and Zeek Bigger each logged a team-high nine tackles and combined for three tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble. Senior end Lee Pegues exploded for a career-high three sacks and a forced fumble while fellow linemen Chrishon Rose and Terrell Stanley had one sack apiece.
“Great run gap integrity, great pass lane integrity, keep covering them on the back end, contain the quarterback and get takeaways, and we did a good job of that,” McNeill said of the challenges he felt his defense overcame. “If we can give our offense two to three extra possessions, which we did tonight, that’s always a benefit to our football team.”
Already leading 21-6 at the intermission, ECU immediately picked up where it left off in the first half, giving itself an easy three points on a short field on FAU’s second drive of the third quarter.
The FAU possession lasted just one play, a Jaquez Johnson pass that glanced off his receiver’s hands and was plucked out the air by ECU corner Josh Hawkins deep in Owl territory. The sophomore sped toward the end zone and attempted to hurdle the last FAU defender before being forced out at the 5.
That set up a Warren Harvey field goal that stretched the Pirate lead to 24-6 early in the third.
Hawkins was at it again on the next FAU drive, deflecting a fourth down pass attempt by Johnson and nearly snaring his second pick in the process.
“We had a good time out there, and when I caught the interception it was full-out running to the end zone, leaping in the air and my guys coming and celebrating it with me,” Hawkins said. “They said if I would have stretched out like Superman I would have had the touchdown. They said I jumped from the 10 and I didn’t even notice it.”
Late in the third, the Pirates put the game on ice when sophomore tailback Chris Hairston raced into the end zone from four yards out to finish off a nine-play drive with his first career touchdown to make it 31-6.
Although the Pirates were under no pressure to score after extending an early 7-6 edge, Carden said the offense — which amassed a pedestrian 312 total yards to FAU’s 282 — should have been sharper against the Owls.
“I think we had too many negative plays — penalties (ECU had seven total for 44 yards), too many fumbles (two lost) and we’ve got to take care of the ball a lot better than that,” Carden said. “When we were good, we were good but we kept stopping ourselves. We never really got in that rhythm.”
Despite some sluggish early drives and an assortment of missed opportunities and tackles on defense, the Pirates crafted a 21-6 halftime lead, again scoring on the opening drive of the game but then falling in and out of sync until the second.
Carden compiled 131 pass yards and cashed in both of his touchdowns in the first two quarters, but most of the offensive load was handled by Cooper, who charged for 80 yards and a touchdown in the opening half alone and also led his team with four catches for 48 yards.
The Pirates opened the game with an 11-play, 81-yard scoring march that was capped by an 18-yard Carden bullet to freshman Davon Grayson, who ducked behind two defenders on a post route and reached up to snare Carden’s pass for his fourth touchdown in just two career games.
Leading 7-0, however, the Pirates allowed consecutive Owls field goals — the second after a big FAU punt return put it on the ECU 27-yard line — to make it a 7-6 game early in the second quarter.
The Pirates dominated the rest of the half, however, cashing in two unanswered touchdowns on two short field drives.
The first was created by an 85-yard Lance Ray kick return. The senior erupted through the middle of the wedge and was pulled down by a shoestring at the FAU 17. Four plays later, Carden zipped a 1-yard pass to Justin Hardy (four receptions, 36 yards) for his first TD of the season, running the Pirate edge to 14-6.
The lead jumped to 21-6 after Falls picked off reserve FAU passer Greg Hankerson on his first throw of the game and returned the ball to the Owl 12-yard line. With 1:13 left in the half, Cooper rumbled across the goal line from seven yards to create some cushion at the intermission.
Hankerson threw for a team-best 116 yards in the FAU loss, including throwing for the Owls’ lone TD.
Contact Nathan Summers at email@example.com or 252-329-9595.
via The Daily Reflector.