COLUMBIA, SC — Repeated miscues in the red zone left East Carolina blue in a 20-15 loss at South Carolina on Saturday.
Statistical dominance by the Pirates only compounded the frustration after ECU had three turnovers inside the Gamecocks’ 7-yard line.
Zay Jones broke a school record for catches in a game held by recent legend Justin Hardy. Jones, the son of former ECU and Dallas Cowboys linebacker Robert Jones, had 22 receptions for 190 yards.
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South Carolina 20, ECU 15 | Sept. 17, 2016
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That performance contributed to 519 yards of total offense for ECU (2-1), compared to 312 for South Carolina (2-1).
First downs were even more one-sided as the Pirates had a 34-13 lead.
Time of possession also was decidedly in ECU’s favor, 38:25 to 21:35.
The Gamecocks used an 80-yard return on the opening kickoff by A.J. Turner in putting ECU in a 17-0 hole.
True freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain had scoring runs of nine and 10 yards in the first four minutes, 13 seconds.
“The difference in this game was penalties and turnovers,” said Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery.
ECU continued to battle despite losing possession multiple times in virtually point-blank scoring range.
The first huge missed opportunity came after the Pirates had stopped the hosts on a fourth-and-1 at the USC 44 with 10:12 left in the half as Kiante Anderson and Dayon Pratt penned up McIlwain for a 1-yard loss.
A 15-yard Nelson pass to Zay Jones set up first-and-goal at the South Carolina 6. Two carries by James Summers put ECU at the 1-yard line.
Montgomery said Nelson had a run-pass option on a toss to the left side of the end zone for Jimmy Williams that was picked off by Jamarcus King.
“Just a bad ball,” Nelson said. “Did not put enough on it.”
The game was officiated by an American Athletic Conference crew and the interception by King was reviewed. The pick/touchback call stood although the ball could be seen loose on the turf on the jumbo screen replay at Williams-Brice Stadium as King went to the ground.
The Pirates moved from their 25 to the South Carolina 6 after taking the second half kickoff. Nelson was picked off at the USC 1-yard line by Chris Lammons.
“The second one, just didn’t get it outside far enough,” Nelson said.
ECU’s next drive ended as a 25-yard field goal try by Davis Plowman was knocked off course by the Gamecocks with 5:07 left in the third.
First-half field goals had gotten the Pirates within 17-6.
ECU was knocking on the door again when Anthony Scott lost a fumble at the USC 5-yard line with 13:11 remaining.
Antoine Wilder had the hit that knocked the ball loose and defensive back D.J. Smith recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
A 45-yard field by Plowman on ECU’s ensuing possession got the Pirates within 17-9 with 8:42 to go.
The Gamecocks responded with their first score since the first quarter as Elliott Fry had a 39-yard field goal for a 20-9 USC lead.
ECU drove from its 25 and finally got into the end zone on a 4-yard pass from Nelson to Devin Anderson. A holding penalty nullified a 2-yard touchdown run by James Summers on the series.
The Pirates drew eight flags for 75 yards, too much for Montgomery.
“Pirates can’t beat Pirates,” said the ECU coach.
Woes in the red zone were too much to overcome.
“Hats off to South Carolina,” Nelson said. “They did a great job. At the same time, I feel like we did a poor job of executing down there.”