GREENVILLE — There was a question as to which Southern Methodist team would show up at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday, the one that stunned then-No. 11 Houston 38-16 on Oct. 22 or the one that was dismantled 51-7 by Memphis at home last week.
The Mustangs got things turned around with turnovers, returning two interceptions for touchdowns in momentum swings the size of tidal waves.
SMU took the ball away from the Pirates five times in a 55-31 American Athletic Conference win.
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SMU 55, East Carolina 31 | Nov. 12, 2016
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- Brett Friedlander’s Game Day Slants: Reevaluation Underway
- W.A. Myatt’s Game Day Photo Gallery
- Audio: Coach Mo Post-Game
The adverse possession changes were like a recurring bad dream for ECU, which lost for the seventh time in eight games to fall to 3-7 overall and 1-5 in the league. The Pirates came in at minus-9 for the season in turnover margin, last in the AAC, and fell to minus-14.
ECU can no longer reach the six-win plateau for bowl eligibility.
“The turnovers is really what changed this game,” said first-year Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery.
ECU was trailing 24-17 and moving for a potential tying score when a 70-yard interception return for a touchdown by Horace Richardson gave the Mustangs a gigantic boost.
“There was a lot of embarrassment coming into this week,” said SMU coach Chad Morris, former offensive coordinator at Clemson. “Coming off the performance that we had last week, we had to make a decision Sunday night. It was a self-check that went into play. We had a great week of practice. There was a lot of unbelievable preparation that had been done all week long.”
The Mustangs (5-5, 3-3) went from 0-3 in turnovers last week to 5-0 at ECU.
After three straight Pirate possessions in the first half ended with turnovers that led to a pair of SMU touchdowns, ECU turned to Gardner Minshew at quarterback. Minshew hit a leaping Zay Jones for an 8-yard touchdown as time expired in the first half to cut the Mustangs’ lead to 38-24.
The Pirates got the second half kickoff and moved from their 38 to the SMU 33 with a chance to get within a touchdown when a Minshew pass caromed out of Jones’ hands to Richardson, who ran 80 yards along the Mustangs sideline for a score that expanded the lead to 45-24 with 11:32 left in the third.
Minshew went out of the game in the fourth quarter after falling to the turf following a sack and Nelson came back in for the final snaps of the game for the Pirates.
The turnovers foiled a promising start for ECU.
The defense got off the field with a three and out on SMU’s first series as Fred Presley had a sack on third down. The Pirates moved 50 yards for a 7-0 lead with Nelson hitting Jones for a 39-yard gain before keeping for the score with 12:37 left in the first quarter.
The defense made a stand after the Mustangs had driven 89 yards to the ECU 4-yard line and SMU settled for a 21-yard field goal by Josh Williams to reduce the Pirates’ lead to 7-3 with 7:48 remaining in the first quarter.
Quay Johnson lost a fumble that SMU’s Justin Lawler recovered at the ECU 39 on the Pirates’ second possession. The Mustangs capitalized with an 8-yard scoring pass from Ben Hicks to Courtland Sutton to take a 10-7 lead with 4:45 in the first.
A 14-yard run by James Summers capped a 63-yard drive as ECU regained the lead at 14-10 with 14:54 left in the half. The Pirates overcame a holding call and an offensive pass interference penalty on the series. Ke’Mon Freeman broke free for a 39-yard scoring run to put SMU ahead 17-14 with 12:41 to go in the half.
A 28-yard Nelson-to-Johnson pass to the SMU 10 led to a 27-yard field goal by Davis Plowman to tie the score at 17 with 9:47 left in the half. It was the seventh straight successful field goal for Plowman.
Hicks connected with James Proche with 6:05 to go in the half for a 10-yard touchdown pass that put the Mustangs ahead to stay at 24-17.
As Summers was fighting for yards, he had the ball taken away by SMU’s Jackson Mitchell at the ECU 46. The Pirates managed to thwart that opportunity for the Mustangs but an interception by Darrion Millines led to a 17-yard touchdown pass from Hicks to Courtland with 1:09 in the half for a 38-17 SMU lead.
The Mustangs had 28 points off turnovers and that was enough to sink the Pirates’ ship.
The offensive numbers were close with ECU registering 27 first downs to 25 for the visitors. SMU had a slight 477-466 lead in total yardage.
The Pirates ran the ball with a degree of success until they had to commit to the passing game with the deficit and time dictating play selection.
“We’ll try to take that away from it,” Montgomery said. “But we’ve got to get better at the run game. The run game is nowhere near what I want it to be. … The run game is what wins the game. You can dominate a game with the run game. … I’ve been a part of teams where we rushed for 400 yards and any time we went to throw the football, it was like throwing it in a dumpster versus the trash can because they were so wide open.”
ECU ran 32 times for 152 yards, an average of 4.8 yards per carry. Summers had 12 rushes for 89 yards and Devin Anderson ran 15 times for 63 yards.
Jones had 12 catches for 173 yards. With games remaining at home against Navy on Saturday and at Temple on Nov. 26, Jones has 139 catches for the season and 380 for his career. The single season Football Bowl Subdivision record for receptions in a season is 155, set by Freddie Barnes of Bowling Green in 2009.
Jones’ former ECU teammate, Justin Hardy, set the career FBS record in 2014 with 387 catches.
Jones’ individual accomplishments have the potential to take some attention away from a losing season, but Montgomery is emphatic about tackling the challenges.
“It’s frustrating,” Montgomery said. “But that’s why we’re here. The difficult jobs are exactly why I’m here. That’s why great coaches are here. If you can’t handle these difficult situations, this is what coaching is all about. We didn’t think we would be where we are right now but we also understand we have to embrace where we are.
“If we don’t build then it’s all for nothing, all the discipline that we worked on, all the nights and the days, the personalities that we’ve sat in meetings with and all the practicing that we’ve been doing. If you can’t handle the difficult times, you need to do something else. This isn’t for you.”