GREENVILLE — A complete game by East Carolina led to a completely-different outcome from what the Pirates had been producing since a 33-30 win over N.C. State on Sept. 10.
ECU rose to the occasion on a sunny homecoming Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
After a succession of unrewarded comebacks in a 5-game losing streak, the Pirates used a combination of offense, defense and special teams performances in rolling to a 41-3 American Athletic Conference win over Connecticut (3-6, 1-5 AAC).
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East Carolina 41, UConn 3 | Oct. 29, 2016
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“The effort, enthusiasm and execution was probably as close to a complete game . . . that we’ve probably had,” said first-year ECU coach Scottie Montgomery.
It was the 11th straight homecoming win for ECU, which improved to 3-5 on the season and 1-3 in the league.
Zay Jones moved into second place on the all-time Football Bowl Subdivision receptions list. Jones caught 19 passes for 185 yards, giving him 355 catches for his career and putting him in second place behind former Pirate Justin Hardy, who finished with 387 catches in 2014.
Jones’ dad, Robert Jones, was on hand to see his son, who played some quarterback in high school, do his part on a gadget play that produced a score. Robert Jones was an All-American linebacker on the 1991 ECU team, which went 11-1, and subsequently was a Super Bowl champion for the Dallas Cowboys.
Jones threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Philip Nelson in a role reversal for a 14-3 ECU lead late in the first half.
“So how many do I need to break the record?” asked Nelson, who said he also had a reception at Minnesota, as he walked out of the postgame interview area with his premier receiver.
The Pirates could be a little light-hearted in the aftermath of a Saturday on the gridiron for a change.
Some of the areas that had been persistent problems registered in ECU’s favor.
The Pirates were 5-for-5 in the red zone. Although leading the AAC in total offense at 513.7 yards per game coming in, ECU was only scoring 26.7 points per game, ninth in the league. The Pirates had 430 total yards Saturday while limiting the Huskies to 295.
ECU was last in the AAC in red zone offense through seven games.
Turnover margin was another source of trouble for the Pirates as their minus-12 on the season was easily last in the conference. But the pendulum swung in the Pirates favor against the Huskies by a 3-0 margin with two interceptions and a fumble recovery. ECU put up 10 points following turnovers. The Huskies had a 4-2 lead in turnovers in last year’s 31-13 win over the Pirates in East Hartford.
The Pirates also mounted some defensive pressure. With only one sack on the season beforehand, ECU logged four against UConn.
ECU had fallen behind by double-figure deficits in its last three AAC games. After closing within a score against Central Florida, South Florida and Cincinnati, the Pirates had been unable to complete their comebacks.
ECU resolved that issue with a fast start and a high level of consistency throughout.
The Pirates limited UConn to no first downs and just 16 total yards in the first quarter. ECU won the toss and deferred its option to the second half. Arkeel Newsome of the Huskies returned the opening kickoff 48 yards to the Pirates’ 45-yard line and ECU was assessed five more yards for an illegal formation.
UConn went quick on a 4th-and-1 at the ECU 31 but quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, a transfer from N.C. State, was stopped for a loss of a yard by Justin Brown and Travon Simmons to give the Pirates some early momentum.
ECU responded by driving 68 yards for a 7-0 lead. The Pirates converted twice on third down, including a 3rd-and-11 at the UConn 44 with a 14-yard pass from Nelson to Jones, who had 12 catches for 108 yards in the first half.
Jones might have broken the FBS record for catches in a game (23) but Montgomery gave reserves playing time with the outcome assured in the fourth quarter.
The initial score came on 4th-and-2 at the UConn 4 with Nelson passing to James Summers on the right side with 8:38 left in the first quarter. ECU brought Shawn Furlow in at running back before going to Summers for the TD.
Nelson completed 29 of 41 passes for 253 yards with two touchdowns before Gardner Minshew came in. Summers completed a 31-yard scoring pass to Jimmy Williams from the trick chapter of the playbook for a 38-3 ECU lead on the first snap of the final period.
Davis Plowman started ECU’s scoring in the second half with a 39-yard field goal for a 17-3 lead and connected from 25 yards with 8:30 to go for the final points.
“When we went into the locker room [at halftime], the biggest thing I wanted my guys to understand is that it was a 0-0 game,” Montgomery said. “The most critical play in the game was us hitting that three.
“Getting that field goal was a critical deal because the team that gets the double score — goes into the locker room and comes out and scores, increases your win percentage chances by a huge amount.”
Huskies kicker Bobby Puyol missed a 46-yard field goal attempt but subsequently hit from 34 yards to cut ECU’s lead to 7-3 with 3:14 left in the half.
The Pirates extended their lead with a 71-yard drive in nine plays that culminated with Jones taking a reverse flip from Summers and passing to Nelson on the right side of the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown with 45 seconds left in the half. Plowman added the conversion kick for a 14-3 ECU advantage.
UConn drove from its 28 to the ECU 37 before surrendering possession on downs with one second left in the half.
ECU led 203-172 in total yardage at the half and 13-7 in first downs. Dayon Pratt had the first sack for the Pirates since a 33-30 win over N.C. State on Sept.10. The play came on 3rd-and-3 at the ECU 13 and the Huskies settled for the field goal by Puyol.
Pratt had three tackles for losses among his seven stops. Inside linebacker Jordan Williams was in on nine tackles to lead ECU and also had a sack. Nickel back DaShaun Amos was in on eight stops and had a sack. Colby Gore had an interception and a sack. Bobby Fulp also had a pick.
Summers ran 19 times for 84 yards to lead the Pirates’ rushing. Williams had six catches for 71 yards.
A fourth down keeper by Summers from a yard out pushed ECU’s lead to 24-3. Joe Carter forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and Ray Tillman recovered for ECU at the UConn 9. Nelson found Jones for a 3-yard score to push the lead to 31-3 three plays later.
Jones said he looked after catching the touchdown pass in stride and saw his parents near the end zone at the Murphy Center end of Bagwell Field.
“Really poetic,” Jones said. ” . . . Probably one of the most memorable moments in my life.”