HOUSTON — There were two ways the Houston Cougars could have gone after a 28-24 win on the road last week over previously-unbeaten and then-nationally-ranked South Florida.
They might have had a letdown — or the Cougars might have used the win for momentum going into a homecoming game with East Carolina on Saturday.
The latter possibility became reality as Houston jumped out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead and, although the Pirates put up some resistance in the form of a big passing day by Gardner Minshew, the Cougars were 52-27 winners.
The outcome dropped ECU to 2-7 overall and 1-4 in the AAC, assuring that the Pirates won’t have six wins for bowl eligibility.
Houston (6-3, 2-3) lost the coin flip and took possession first but used the opportunity for an 11-play, 75-yard drive capped by quarterback D’Eriq King’s 2-yard keeper with 10:48 left in the first period.
Duke Catalon scored on a 22-yard run and Courtney Lark hauled in a 5-yard scoring pass from King later in the first quarter. The Cougars scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions and when the ECU defense made a stop, Pirates starting quarterback Thomas Sirk relinquished the ball on an interception that led to Houston’s second TD.
Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery had planned to play Minshew the third series going into the game. The season-opening starter completed 52 of 68 passes for 463 yards with three touchdowns and one pick that was returned for a score.
“Gardner Minshew gave us a great rhythm on offense,” Montgomery said. ” . . . We didn’t know he would come out there quite that clean and throw the ball around the way he did. I thought he did a good job of distributing the ball on the perimeter.”
Sirk was 2-for-6 for 5 yards with one interception.
On ECU’s first play from scrimmage, Sirk overthrew Davon Grayson, who was open deep.
Montgomery stopped short of saying Minshew would return to the starting role, saying that decision would be evaluated.
The Pirates failed to convert on a 37-yard field goal by Jake Verity late in the first half that would have reduced the margin to 28-13 at the break.
Holder Austin Barnes, who punted three times for 42.7 yards, said he was told to call for the snap by the coaches when the game clock was at four seconds. Kicker Jake Verity was focused on the play clock, which showed more time.
As a result, the ball was snapped before Verity was locked in and his attempt missed to the left.
Verity displayed his capability by hitting from 52 yards with 7:30 to play. By then the Cougars advantage had swelled to 52-20.
A 22-yarder by Verity got ECU within 21-3 with 8:40 left in the half. Minshew found Trevon Brown for a 34-yard score to cut the deficit to 28-10 with 5:24 remaining in the half.
Minshew’s 9-yard scoring toss to Brown trimmed Houston’s lead to 28-17 with 9:03 left in the third quarter. Houston responded with a 75-yard pass from King to Steven Dunbar on the next snap for a 35-17 Cougars lead.
Houston sealed the outcome with more big plays, a TD pass from King to Linell Bonner that covered 62 yards and a 74-yard interception return for a score by Brandon McDowell.
The Pirates kept passing with an 18-yard toss from Minshew to Quay Johnson accounting for the final touchdown with 2:48 to go.
Johnson had 14 catches for 115 yards. Brown had 11 catches for 141 yards.
Montgomery said ECU’s numbers in the running game were skewed because many of the shorter passes were in response to Houston’s defensive alignment and were similar to rushing plays.
The Pirates netted just 36 yards on the ground on 24 rushes.
“The running game was much better than what it looks like on paper,” said the ECU coach. “Those spit-outs that we throw out to the perimeter, those are all a part of the run game. When they load the box on you in those run-pass options, that’s nothing but an extended sweep or an extended handoff. All-in-all, I thought our offensive line did a great job on No.10 (noseguard Ed Oliver). He was not as disruptive as we thought he was going to be.”
ECU led 504 to 472 in total yardage and 40:23 to 19:37 in time of possession but Houston’s big plays and Pirate turnovers helped swing the pendulum toward the hosts.
“Turnovers were a big deal and, defensively, we just didn’t cover,” Montgomery said. “Overall, we’ve got to play much better in coverage.
Houston did not have a turnover. King completed 15 of 21 passes for 330 yards with 3 TDs.
Bonner had seven catches for 147 yards and Dunbar was on the end of six passes for 171 yards.
The Pirates announced before kickoff that offensive left tackle Messiah Rice had been dismissed from the team for a violation of athletic department policy. Rice, who had been suspended at the outset bof the season, had started five of six games at left tackle since coming back. Justin Sandifer played at left tackle in Rice’s absence.
Houston has shown its resiliency after losing 45-17 at Tulsa and 42-38 at home to No. 24 Memphis before rising up against the Bulls.
Minshew said the Cougars compared favorably to the handful of nationally-ranked teams the Pirates have faced.
“We’re stopping ourselves,” Minshew said. “That’s the most frustrating thing. They’re a very good team. They did a lot of great things. They have some great players, but offensively we really got in our own way in a game that we really could have done better.”
The area in general has responded well to the adversity of Hurricane Harvey. The city celebrated the World Series triumph of the Houston Astros on Friday with a parade that drew a crowd estimated at one million to the downtown area.
The Pirates will seek a recovery of their own as Tulane visits for an AAC game on Saturday at 7 p.m.
“We have to go out the same way every game, no matter how hard it is, no matter what team it is,” Brown said. “We’re going to play hard regardless.”