Gardner Minshew was more comfortable in his second relief appearance for East Carolina on Saturday and it showed.
Pressed into action for the second straight week in the third quarter after starting quarterback Philip Nelson came out of the game, Minshew helped the Pirates come back from a 24-6 deficit to close within 24-22 with 6:58 remaining.
Host South Florida pulled away to a 38-22 win but Minshew gained valuable experience and confidence going into a home game with Navy on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
Minshew was up and down in a 47-29 home loss to Central Florida, throwing a touchdown on his first pass in Greenville but getting picked off twice subsequently, including a pick six. He appeared more settled and confident after taking the starter’s reps on Tuesday last week.
“I knew going in I always have to be ready,” said the sophomore transfer from Northwest Mississippi Community College. “I have to credit coach [Tony] Petersen (offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach) for putting me in position to succeed. I just hate I couldn’t lead us back for a victory.”
For the second straight season, the Bulls’ Quinton Flowers to Rodney Adams connection produced a pivotal score. Last year, their 67-yard touchdown provided with 4:40 left to play provided a 22-17 USF road win.
This year, the duo clicked on a 62-yard TD with 6:06 to go for a 31-22 Bulls lead.
Just 52 seconds beforehand, the Pirates were within two points on a 3-yard scoring run by James Summers.
ECU went for a 2-point conversion that would have tied the score.
“They had a great coverage for our play,” Minshew said. “They put two guys on Isaiah (Zay Jones) and that was kind of our primary. They did a good job of covering everybody else so that was tough.”
Minshew’s conversion pass was caught by Anthony Scott but he was out of bounds beside the end zone boundary.
“We had a lot of energy at that point,” Minshew said. “We knew we had to keep pressing, throw the ball in the end zone and that’s what we tried to do. We just came up a little bit short.”
Minshew hit Deondre Farrior for a 46-yard gain to the USF 1 to set up his 1-yard scoring pass to Jones, a spark in ECU’s rally. The Pirates’ backup quarterback said the play to Farrior was one he was aware of in terms of its potential.
“There was a couple of things like that play we hit [Deondre] Farrior on down the sideline,” Minshew said. “We had run it earlier and had a good look at that. There was a few other things that I’ve always learned from Philip. He’s done a great job helping me and teaching me through this whole season this whole process.”
In the last two weeks, Minshew has gone from redshirt to game changer.
“My preparation is the same,” he said. “I’ve been ready all year. There’s just a lot more weight on your shoulders, pressure to perform for your teammates. . . . I felt a lot more comfortable today. I feel like the more reps I get, the better I’ll be and the more trust the guys will have in me.”
Minshew completed 21 of 33 passes for 220 yards with one touchdown and one interception off a tip.
Summers helped take pressure off the passing game by lining up at running back for most of the way and carrying 18 times for 114 yards.
“We haven’t been running the ball well so we really worked on zone read and stuff this week,” Summers said. “They played with a lot of one linebacker in the box so we wanted to take advantage of that so that’s what we did. We ran the ball downhill.”
Summers, who has played his share of quarterback, credited Minshew’s poise.
“[Gardner] played composed,” Summers said. “He knows this offense as well as anybody in my view. He really knows what he’s doing. He came in and led us. He tried his best.”
ECU’s defense helped cut into the USF lead.
“The defense made a statement by stopping them,” Summers said. “We had scored right before so we wanted to come back and punch it in. That’s what we did. We ran the ball down their throats and we punched it in. . . . ”
ECU’s struggles in the red zone subsided on the short scoring run by Summers.
“The linebacker blitzed the wrong hole and I walked in,” Summers said.
Jones had another super performance with 18 receptions for 145 yards. He credited Minshew’s effort.
“I believe Gardner did a great job,” Jones said. “It’s tough being a backup quarterback, to come in there in the heat of the moment. You haven’t had the timing that the first string quarterback has had with Philip so I feel like he did an excellent job.
“I need to help him out more. There were some balls that I dropped — that I missed that I beat myself up about because I can make those plays. Offense tries to do what they can with what we have. . . . Credit USF. They played a great game. They’re a well-coached team.”
With a short week and Nelson appearing to hobble slightly coming out of the locker room at USF, Minshew could play an even more important role as ECU seeks to stop a four-game losing streak.
Attention on Navy
The Pirates’ focus shifts to the Midshipmen (4-1, 3-0), who handed visiting Houston its first loss, 46-40, on Saturday. ECU (2-4, 0-2) hasn’t won since a 33-30 home win over N.C. State on Sept. 10, its longest string of setbacks since 2004. Jones said ECU will be eager to play again and the compacted week is an asset in that regard.
“It helps us coming off a loss,” said the Pirates’ premier receiver. “You want to get back and get your mind off of it.”
ECU outside linebacker Dayon Pratt had eight solo tackles to lead the Pirates at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. He had four assists, 1.5 tackles for loss and forced a fumble that was recovered by teammate Travis Phillips.
“I believe defense was physical up front,” Pratt said of the effort against the Bulls. “The DBs read their keys. The DBs did a good job. We were stopping them. We just gave up big plays. The big plays is what killed us. As far as driving up the field, they couldn’t do it.”
The Naval Academy is near where Pratt grew up in the nation’s capital but he said that isn’t the factor that will motivate him at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Thursday night.
“It’s not me being from Washington, D.C.,” Pratt said. “It’s just losing badly to them. … That’s the thing that gets me. That’s what we’re going to lean on and that’s what we’re going to have in the back of our minds.”
Navy whipped the Pirates 45-21 last year in Annapolis in its first AAC game. The Midshipmen appear to have regrouped from the loss of record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds.
“They’re a real disciplined team,” Pratt said. “They’re focused. They lean on their techniques and they cut block. We’re just going to have to play low, low pad level, get off the blocks and run to the ball.”