EAST HARTFORD, CT — As a tying 33-yard field goal attempt by Matt Tarbutt sailed wide right and the final seconds ran off the clock at Pratt & Whitney Stadium, a seven-game losing streak ended for East Carolina, which never trailed in its 2017 American Athletic Conference opener on Sunday.
Thomas Sirk completed 30 of 39 passes for 426 yards with three touchdowns to Davon Grayson and no interceptions in a 41-38 win over Connecticut.
Grayson stepped up as Jimmy Williams had flu-like symptoms and did not play.
“That was a curve ball when we had our game plan around those two guys and other players, but that’s what we do,” Sirk said. “We respond to adversity. Guys step up. We were getting the ball around to everybody today.”
A make-up game at Yankee Stadium today was responsible for ECU playing on a nontraditional day for college football. The Pirates improved to 5-0 in Sunday games in the history of the program.
Because the New York Yankees needed the time to convert their facility for baseball, the NYCFC team in Major League Soccer secured Pratt & Whitney Stadium as an alternate site to host a game with Houston. The soccer teams played to a 1-1 draw on Saturday night.
The circumstances contributed to Sirk making his first winning start at quarterback since the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium to conclude his 2015 season at Duke. He missed last season with the Blue Devils due to a torn Achilles and decided to reunite with his former offensive coordinator at Duke, Scottie Montgomery, at ECU as a graduate transfer.
Sirk was instrumental in building an early advantage as East Carolina scored on all three of its first-quarter possessions and led 21-7 after 15 minutes. Jake Verity’s field goals of 46 and 26 yards accounted for ECU’s second-quarter scoring as the Pirates were on top 27-14 at the half.
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ECU won the toss, deferred its option and went three and out on its first defensive series.
Sirk, who missed last week’s 64-17 home loss to Virginia Tech due to precautions following concussion protocol, drove the Pirates 65 yards on the first series. Sirk had a 22-yard completion to Quay Johnson on the possession that culminated with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Grayson with 10:14 left in the opening period.
“It was a good decision for me, health-wise, last week to just kind of recover and give my body a chance to recuperate, get ready for this week and open up conference play with a win,” Sirk said.
The Huskies answered the first salvo from the Pirates with a 45-yard touchdown pass from Bryant Shirreffs to Mason Donaldson to tie the score at 7 with 8:52 left in the first quarter.
Sirk overcame UConn’s only sack on ECU’s second possession, completing a 75-yard move with a 24-yard scoring toss to Grayson.
Clemson graduate transfer Korrin Wiggins picked off a pass from Shirreffs, who transferred from N.C. State, to set up ECU’s third scoring possession at the UConn 36. Derrell Scott ran 6 yards for a TD as the Pirates went ahead 21-7 with 3:46 remaining in the first quarter.
The Huskies went for it on 4th-and-goal and pulled within 27-14 on a 1-yard scoring run by Nate Hopkins.
The decision to take the second-half kickoff paid off as Grayson hauled in a pass from Sirk on the ECU sideline and cut back to the middle. That accounted for a 75-yard pass play for a score on the first snap of the third quarter.
Grayson said he told coaches at halftime he could make the route work and the Pirates went to him immediately as play resumed.
Trevon Brown provided a block downfield that allowed Hussein Howe to complete a 14-yard scoring run with a dive to the right pylon as ECU went ahead 41-21 with 11:00 left in the third quarter.
ECU won 41-3 against the Huskies at homecoming last year, the last victory of a 3-9 season for the Pirates in 2016. The Pirates went 1-7 in the AAC last year.
ECU’s seven-game losing streak spanned two seasons. The Pirates are 1-0 in the league for the third time in four years.
Some more history — the visiting team had not won in three previous games in the series, which East Carolina now leads, 3-1.
ECU’s last trip to Pratt & Whitney Stadium on Friday night, Oct. 30, 2015, resulted in a 31-13 win for the Huskies. The Pirates had lost 24-14 to Temple at home in the preceding game on Thursday, Oct. 22.
“So much has changed since that last time that we played (at UConn),” Grayson said. “But I think the core of our team is still the same. We’ve got guys that as we drove up in here, we had flashes back to that trip. Nobody wants to feel like we felt after that game. Nobody wants to have that long flight home. Everybody’s sad.
“We were all determined and we trusted in each other to come out on top.”
The temperature for that contest at UConn in Ruffin McNeill’s final season was 48 degrees at kickoff. The weather was much more Greenville-like in the Pirates’ second trip to East Hartford — sunny and 84 degrees when Caleb Pratt’s boot to the end zone got the game underway.
“It was hot,” Sirk said. “I don’t think it was as humid [as Greenville].”
Many college players, Sirk included, aspire to play on Sundays.
“The coaches told us we had that opportunity today,” Sirk said.
The rescheduled matchup with the Huskies was moved from Nov. 4 to allow UConn to make up a game with South Florida that was postponed due to Hurricane Irma. ECU now has an open date on Oct. 28 and visits Houston on Nov. 4.
The Pirates’ previous conquests on Sunday include a 41-38 win over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 23, 2007, a 13-10 win at Central Florida on Nov. 2, 2008, a 44-17 victory at Tulsa on Nov. 15, 2009, and a thrilling 51-49 triumph at home over the Golden Hurricane in McNeill’s first game as coach on Sept.5, 2010.
ECU is 20-23 in non-Saturday games since 2000, but is 14-11 on the road in those situations.
Success on the Sabbath wasn’t assured until Tarbutt’s wayward boot at the end. The Huskies (1-2) had settled for a 20-yard field goal with 50 seconds left in the third quarter when faced with 4th-and-goal at the ECU 3-yard line. That cut the Pirates’ lead to 41-31.
UConn’s Arkeel Newsome inexplicably escaped as multiple ECU defenders converged after he caught a pass in the right flat. Nobody got Newsome to the ground and he spun away for a 79-yard touchdown that trimmed the lead to the final three-point margin with 5:48 left to play.
That chunk helped each team finish with 596 yards of total offense. On the bright side, it was the first time ECU (1-3) had held an opponent under 600 yards this season.
A crowd announced at 14,036 thought they might see a miraculous comeback, but the Pirates survived to make a happy trip home.
“We’re 1-0 in the conference and that’s exactly where we said we wanted to be,” Montgomery said.
The Pirates coach expected to have safety Tim Irvin in addition to Jimmy Williams.
“Our guys just persevered early,” Montgomery said.
All’s well that ends well, as the saying goes.
“It feels like my birthday,” Montgomery said. “It’s my son Cassius’ birthday. Happy birthday, Cassius.”
And happy day, Pirate Nation. It could have ended differently.