GREENVILLE — East Carolina rose to the occasion on its Senior Day on Saturday, ending a six-game losing streak against Cincinnati by dominating from start to finish in a 48-20 victory.
Not only did the program get a win for the seniors in their last game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, juniors Trevon Brown and Gardner Minshew put an optimistic spin on the future.
Minshew completed 31 of 45 passes for 444 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Brown set an American Athletic Conference and ECU record with 270 receiving yards. He pulled in two touchdowns among his nine receptions, including a 20-yard score from Reid Herring, who connected on his first collegiate toss with 5:06 left to play. Brown also matched his school record reception at West Virginia with a 95-yarder.
The Pirates had a 578-326 lead in total yardage. The defense set a tone with a sack and a forced fumble to shut down the Bearcats on their first series.
The ECU offense also got off on the right foot with Tahj Deans scoring on a 23-yard pass from Minshew to complete a six-play, 65-yard drive to open the game.
Special teams provided some highlights as well, including field goals from 46 and 50 yards by Jake Verity. Austin Barnes had a 62-yard punt that was downed at Cincinnati’s 1-yard line. Barnes’ only other punt traveled 63 yards.
A 15-yard carry by Darius Pinnix to start the game was a reprise from the final play in a 31-24 overtime loss to Tulane last week.
“It was a statement,” ECU coach Scottie Montgomery confirmed. “I think they had been hearing all week, ‘Y’all couldn’t get a yard?'”
Perhaps simmering on that setback helped create the mindset that produced a win in the seventh and final home game of the year.
The Pirates reached into their bag of tricks with a flea flicker and two catches for 21 yards by quarterback Thomas Sirk, who lined up as a receiver.
East Carolina boldly went for a 4th-and-3 at the Cincinnati 41 on its second possession and Minshew found Brown for a 33-yard gain. Hussein Howe completed the series with a 3-yard scoring run.
ECU led 21-0 as Jimmy Williams scored with a determined push into the end zone on an 11-yard pass play from Minshew with 9:02 left in the first half.
The Bearcats may have created a glimpse of deja vu from the Pirates’ early 17-7 lead against Virginia Tech in a 64-17 loss when the visitors closed within 21-13 Saturday.
Verity extended the margin to 24-13 with his 46-yarder just before halftime.
At times this season ECU has played well for a quarter or a half, but the Pirates were 60-minute men as the sun shone and the breeze blew on an ideal afternoon in terms of the November norm.
“God blessed us,” said senior safety Korrin Wiggins, a graduate transfer from 2016 national champion Clemson, who was in on a team high 11 tackles.
“This leaves a good taste in our mouths,” said senior linebacker Jordan Williams, who was in on seven stops.
“It was just fun,” said Sirk, who had the season passing lead with 1,655 yards until Minshew’s performance Saturday. “Looking at faces of guys who had put so much work in and it really paid off.”
Montgomery said Sirk was gracious about his reset to receiver. The Pirates obviously want to give Minshew a chance to develop further for next season.
Teammates are seeing more confidence and maturity from Minshew.
“He had his swag today,” said senior receiver Jimmy Williams. “He had his confidence.”
Jimmy Williams, from nearby Washington, wasn’t going to be denied his score despite a continuing back ailment.
He scored on a screen play.
“It clicked in my head before the snap, ‘This was your role when you came in here,'” Williams said of the call. “We’d run screens and throw it to Jimmy. It gave me a little extra. The guy in front of me was talking junk from the play before. I was like, ‘All right, you don’t know the real me.’ I got the ball and it was like, ‘Ain’t nobody stopping me from getting in that end zone.'”
The outcome served as an atonement of sorts. The crowd was announced as 31,923 but it appeared that even fewer were actually on hand.
Those that came saw the Pirates conquer.
“It meant a lot,” Williams said of the win. “It meant even more when you saw the attention to detail that the players had. You saw the heart that they had, the drive that they had. That’s the biggest part. That’s what made me so emotional, not just playing in this stadium, but the guys that I had around me.”
One-game academic suspensions sidelined defensive lineman Tyree Owens and safety Tim Irvin. Receiver Davon Grayson was a late scratch with a back ailment. Safety Bobby Fulp was also sidelined with an injury. The Pirates were also missing freshman defensive back Tank Robinson.
Deans was the next man up behind Grayson and responded with five catches for 56 yards.
ECU won the turnover battle 1-0 on a fourth-quarter interception by senior Chris Love, which led to the TD pass by Herring.
The streak Cincinnati had in the series included some pivotal moments in Pirate football history.
Steve Logan’s last game as ECU coach came with a 42-26 home loss to the Bearcats on Dec. 6, 2002. The Pirates opened the following season and the John Thompson coaching era with a 40-3 loss at Cincinnati on Sept. 1, 2003.
Ruffin McNeill’s tenure as ECU coach concluded with a 19-16 loss to the Bearcats on Nov. 28, 2015.
Stadium sideline announcer Brian Bailey of WNCT-TV 9 and Bonesville, talked to Scott Harley on the big screen at the stadium Saturday. Harley ran for an ECU school record 351 yards on Nov. 30, 1996, in a 50-29 season-ending win over N.C. State in Charlotte. The Pirates were 8-3 that season but did not receive a bowl berth.
This year’s Pirates are 3-8 going into the season finale at Memphis. They improved to 2-5 in the AAC, bettering last year’s 1-7 league mark.
ECU plays at Memphis at noon, Eastern time on Saturday. The Tigers (9-1, 6-1 AAC) clinched a berth in the league championship on Dec. 2 with a 66-45 win over visiting Southern Methodist.
Harley led ECU on the ground 21 years ago. The Pirates traveled through the air for the most part in their most recent and much-needed triumph.
ECU sent the seniors out in style and created some hope going forward with their most-decisive and well-rounded win this season.