ORLANDO — East Carolina’s American Athletic Conference trip to nationally-ranked Central Florida unfolded as expected on Saturday night.
The Knights, unbeaten and No. 22 in the Associated Press poll, scored just 76 seconds after the opening kickoff and downed the Pirates, 63-21.
ECU had a brief flurry with a 57-yard run by true freshman Darius Pinnix to set up a 5-yard scoring pass from Thomas Sirk to Deondre Farrier with 4:32 left in the first quarter. That cut the Knights’ lead to 14-7 and the Pirate defense subsequently made a three-and-out stop but the hosts soon regained control.
Pinnix finished with 13 carries for 93 yards as ECU had 187 rushing yards.
“We worked really hard on the running game this week,” said Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery. “We were able to run it a lot better than we did last week.”
ECU managed just 34 yards on the ground in a 34-10 loss to Temple in its previous game so that was a positive.
After the initial score for the Pirates and the defensive stop, the ECU offense also went three-and-out and the chance to build momentum was lost.
ECU didn’t score again until Sirk found Davon Grayson for a 4-yard touchdown to trim UCF’s advantage to 35-14 with 1:41 left in the first half.
Sirk hit Grayson for a 41-yard gain on the second scoring possession for the Pirates, who dropped to 1-6 overall and 1-3 in the AAC going into a home nonconference game Saturday at 7 p.m. against Brigham Young, which is also 1-6 after a 35-10 loss at Mississippi State.
The Cougars will come to Greenville under circumstances similar to ECU’s visit to Provo, Utah, in 2015 when BYU won 45-38. The Pirates made a trip to Southern Methodist the previous week, rallying for a 49-23 victory.
“We’ll be focused and prepared to play a tough BYU football team,” Montgomery said.
There was a high degree of contrast to ECU’s last visit to UCF in 2015. There were just 23,734 on hand to see the Pirates take a 44-7 triumph at what is now called Spectrum Stadium. Two years ago, the Knights endured a winless season, which included the resignation of coach George O’Leary.
Attendance was 40,287 for the latest meeting in the series, which ECU leads, 10-6.
UCF improved to 5-0 overall and 3-0 in the AAC. A Sept. 16 game with Georgia Tech was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma. Knight fans are already anticipating the potential implications of a Nov. 24 matchup at home against nearby South Florida, which is ranked No. 15 and moved to 6-0 just down Interstate-4 with a 33-3 win over Cincinnati while UCF was becoming the third team to exceed the 60-point plateau against the Pirates this season.
ECU’s final score came after Sirk had been replaced by Gardner Minshew. Tahj Deans hauled in a 17-yard score from the back-up quarterback. That cut UCF’s lead to 56-21 with 10:41 remaining.
“At the end of the day, it’s about being able to score touchdowns,” Montgomery said. “We were good in the red zone (3-for-3). Our problem was between the 20s. We couldn’t get any momentum going. It took a big play in all those situations, whether it was Davon Grayson, whether it was Darius Pinnix. . . . Some of our young players are playing better and playing well. We’ve got to continue to push.”
The Pirate coach said the offensive front’s struggle to protect Sirk and the opportunity to give Minshew some reps led to the switch at quarterback. There doesn’t appear to be a position battle brewing.
Sirk completed 9 of 21 passes for 91 yards with two scores and one interception. Minshew was 6-of-12 for 69 yards with one touchdown and no picks.
Grayson led the receiving corps with six catches for 96 yards.
Montgomery wanted to see better discipline after the Pirates had 96 yards in walk-offs last week. ECU drew 10 flags for 55 yards at UCF.
“There was a little better discipline,” Montgomery said. “There’s still a long ways we’ve got to go. There’s a lot of frustration in football games when you don’t necessarily make plays and when plays get made around you, you’re trying to make up for not making a play. We’ve got to grow our discipline as well.
“We’ve got to get back and get healthy. We’ve got to get everybody back on the field and ready to play. … We’ve got to play better than this. If we play the way we played tonight, it doesn’t matter who’s coming in. Pirates can’t beat Pirates and a lot of times, we did that tonight.”
Graduate transfers Gaelin Elmore, a defensive end from Minnesota, and Korrin Wiggins, a safety from Clemson, did not play due to academic issues.
Punter Austin Barnes, who transferred from Eastern Michigan, was supposed to boot the ball out of bounds rather than give dangerous UCF returner Mike Hughes an opportunity to make a play. Hughes took a punt 66 yards for a touchdown with 4:48 left in the third quarter.
Montgomery pointed out that a 50-yard interception return for a score in the second quarter was not the responsibility of the ECU defense.
UCF outgained the Pirates, 600-347, in total yardage. ECU got sacks from Devon Sutton and Tyree Owens. Aaron Ramseur led the Pirates with involvement in nine tackles. Sutton and Davondre “Tank” Robinson were each in on eight stops. Robinson had a fumble recovery that was forced by Owens to halt a UCF drive at the ECU 1-yard line in the third quarter.
“They’re a good team,” Sutton said. “They have a lot of speed. That helps them out a lot. We have to get everybody to the ball. It’s a matter of executing the play calls and everybody being on the same page. They have a lot of motion. They try to catch your eyes and cause mistakes.”
In the end, the Pirates couldn’t make enough plays against another nationally-ranked opponent, the fifth team ECU has faced that has appeared in the polls.
“We made a play down there, guys running to the ball and getting it out but there’s too many chunk plays,” Montgomery said. “We took the momentum away from our defense when we threw a pick six and then we get a punt return for a touchdown. That really hurts a defense when they look up there and there was 14 points that was not accounted for by them.
“We’ve got to do a better job on special teams. We’ve got to do a much better job on offense.”