GREENVILLE — East Carolina’s matchup with visiting Central Florida started with an unanticipated display and ended with a surprising outcome.
Following a kneeling protest during the national anthem by some members of the ECU marching band, a combination of UCF improvements along with mistakes and missed opportunities by the Pirates produced a 47-29 Knights victory in the American Athletic Conference opener for both programs.
Dr. Cecil Staton, ECU chancellor, issued a statement on the band and Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery commented on the performance that led to a third straight loss.
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UCF 47, ECU 29 | Oct. 1, 2016
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“While we acknowledge and understand the disappointment felt by many Pirate fans in response to the events at the beginning of today’s football game, we urge all Pirate students, supporters and participants to act with respect for each other’s views,” said Staton in a portion of a release.
The band drew some boos at the outset of its halftime show.
ECU thumped the Knights 44-7 in Orlando on Nov. 19 last season and was a slight favorite on Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The preseason AAC media poll had UCF sixth and last in the East Division while rating the Pirates fifth.
Both programs have first-year coaches. Scott Frost has the Knights off to a 3-2 start after taking over a team that was winless in 2015.
“Hats off to UCF for winning the football game,” Montgomery said in his postgame news conference. “A really, really frustrating loss. A very disappointing loss as well. We had a lot of numbers in that game. We don’t know how to finish drives right now.”
Justin Holman was back at quarterback for the Knights as UCF injuries forced the Pirates to prepare for several potential signal callers.
Holman was the flinger on the Hail Mary that gave UCF a stunning 32-30 win on ECU’s Senior Night in 2014.
The current Knights possessed a similar response mechanism when the Pirates threatened this year.
ECU’s lone lead came on a 16-yard touchdown pass from Philip Nelson to Deondre Farrier with 11:33 left in the first half.
UCF turned the momentum in just 12 seconds as Adrian Killins took the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a tying score. It was a bitter pill for the Pirates, who retooled special teams coverage after an 87-yard punt return for the first score in a 54-17 loss at Virginia Tech last week.
A 70-yard punt by UCF’s Caleb Houston was downed at the ECU 2-yard line and led to the second safety for the Pirates in as many weeks. Worth Gregory sent the punt following the safety out of bounds and the Knights took possession at midfield. They scored for a 16-7 lead in just three plays as Dontravious Wilson escaped on a 35-yard scoring run.
The Knights were up 23-7 after their first possession of the second half.
The Pirates responded to the deficit with their best flurry of the day although it came at the cost of removing the redshirt from junior college transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew.
Nelson delivered a 9-yard scoring pass to Zay Jones to get ECU within 23-14 with 4:23 left in the third quarter on a series that started at the Pirates’ 44-yard line following a leaping interception by Colby Gore.
Nelson went out on the next series as a result of a targeting hit by UCF’s Mark Rucker in the end zone late in the third quarter. Rucker, who was ejected, still finished as the leader tackler for the Knights with eight solo stops and two assists.
Quay Johnson turned Minshew’s first pass at ECU into a 75-yard touchdown with an elusive move along the UCF sideline.
The Pirates were down just 23-21 with 13 seconds left in the third quarter — seemingly with plenty of time to complete a comeback but again the Knights pilfered the momentum.
Wilson completed a 53-second drive with a 14-yard run as the Knights went up 30-21.
Minshew’s third pass for the Pirates was picked off with a leaping one-handed grab by 260-pound redshirt freshman Brendon Hayes, who went four yards into the East end zone for a 37-21 lead for the visitors with 14:05 left to play.
The crowd of 46,042 began to thin as the outcome appeared obvious.
The Pirates went 3-for-7 in the red zone as problems in scoring range persisted. True freshman Jake Verity was left on a 31-yard attempt in the second quarter and an ECU drive from its 38 to the UCF 1 in the third quarter ended with Nelson tackled at the UCF 6 on fourth down.
Montgomery cited difficulties in general on offense as the Pirates managed just 48 yards on 32 rushes with Nelson running for 31 yards. The former Minnesota quarterback completed 23 of 41 passes for 276 yards with two TDs and one interception. The Knights had five sacks and ECU had five turnovers.
“They stopped the run and we couldn’t get anything going,” Montgomery said. “We didn’t protect the passer. We lost field position.”
A trio of Pirates — Jones, Jimmy Williams and Johnson — each had over 100 yards in receptions for ECU. Jones had 15 catches for 122 yards. Williams had seven receptions for 145 yards and Johnson finished with four grabs for 110 yards.
The productivity in the passing game and just two penalties for 15 yards were power points for the Pirates. ECU (2-3) outgained the Bulls 518 to 370 in total yardage as Minshew completed 12 of 27 for 192 yards with one score and two picks.
The ECU coach didn’t know Nelson’s status for a noon kickoff on Saturday at South Florida (4-1), which won 45-20 at Cincinnati on Saturday in its AAC opener.