ORLANDO — After trailing 35-6 at the half, East Carolina showed impressive resilience in the second half of a 41-28 American Athletic Conference loss at Central Florida on Saturday night.
“We wanted to finish the game hard,” said Pirates defensive end Kendall Futrell. “We came out in the second half with better effort and a better mindset.”
A blocked punt by Leroy Henley helped swing the momentum to ECU early in the third quarter. The play helped the Pirates embark on a flurry of 16 unanswered points.
“Coach (Roy) Tesh (special teams coordinator) called the right play and we executed it,” Henley said. “It just happened to be me. It felt great. We needed a spark coming out of halftime.”
The disappointment and frustration of first-year coach Mike Houston was apparent after a 42-10 loss at Navy in ECU’s only previous AAC road game.
The battle that developed at Spectrum Stadium left him in a better frame of mind.
“I feel energized,” Houston said despite the outcome, which put the Pirates at 3-4 overall and 0-3 in the league going into a home game with South Florida on Saturday at 3:45 p.m.
The last 30 minutes should serve as a good springboard as ECU prepares for the Bulls, who fell to 3-4 overall and 1-2 in the league with a 35-3 loss at Navy on Saturday.
The Pirate defense got a stop on the first series of the second half as Dillon Gabriel threw incomplete under pressure on third down. Henley blocked the ensuing punt. Jsi Hatfield returned the carom 6 yards to the UCF 1-yard line.
Henley reached with his left hand over the protect group to curtail the punt by Andrew Osteen at the UCF 16.
Freshman running back Demetrius Mauney scored on first down as the Pirates closed the gap to 35-13 with 14:01 left in the third quarter.
The Pirates allowed just 40 yards on UCF’s first three possessions of the second half. On ECU’s third series after intermission, Holton Ahlers completed a 24-yard pass off a fake pitch on play action with tight end Jeremy Lewis taking the reception to the UCF 33.
A 20-yard gain by Ahlers got ECU to the UCF 7.
A 23-yard field goal by Jake Verity trimmed the lead to 35-16 with 6:41 to go in the third quarter after Ahlers threw incomplete for C.J. Johnson on 3rd-and-goal at the Knights’ 6.
Johnson had 8 catches for 106 yards to lead the ECU receivers.
Futrell sacked Gabriel and forced a fumble that was recovered by Alex Turner at the UCF 33. Ahlers found Johnson for 13 yards on third down. Ahlers went into the end zone just inside the right pylon on the next play from 20 yards out.
The score stood after a video review. ECU threw incomplete on the 2-point try and trailed 35-22 with 4:45 to go in the third.
The Knights regained the momentum with a 53-yard scoring pass from Gabriel to Tre Nixon less than a minute later. A failed 2-point toss left the UCF lead at 41-22.
Ahlers had an 18-yard completion to Johnson on a 3rd-and-14 to get the Pirates to the UCF 39, but Trace Christian lost a fumble at the UCF 35 on the next third down.
The Knights went for a 4th-and-1 at their 44 to start the fourth quarter. Jalen Price was credited with the stop for a loss of a yard. Ahlers was sacked on third down of the ensuing series for ECU.
The Pirates converted a 3rd-and-20 with a 38-yard pass from Ahlers to Tyler Snead. That got ECU to the UCF 28.
Ahlers tried to throw in the grasp of a UCF defender and the pass was picked off with 8:37 to go.
Ahlers found Snead for an 8-yard touchdown to finish the scoring with 1:38 to go.
“A good call by Coach Donnie (Kirkpatrick, offensive coordinator), for the coverage,” Snead said.
Kirkpatrick moved to the press box from the sideline for the UCF game.
A 2-point try after the last TD went awry and UCF controlled the onside kick.
Not that there is a good time to play UCF, but Saturday night certainly was a difficult assignment in terms of timing for East Carolina.
The Knights had dropped two of their last three by a total of four points with over two weeks to brood and simmer after falling 27-24 at Cincinnati on Oct. 4.
UCF had just one loss in the previous two seasons with McKenzie Milton quarterbacking most of the way during that span.
Milton is sitting out this season, but the Knights were still picked to win the AAC in the preseason poll.
Gabriel, a true freshman, has taken up the torch offensively for the Knights, who emerged from a frustrating span with an early surge against the Pirates.
Gabriel completed 17 of 22 passes for 274 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions as the Knights led comfortably at the break.
UCF back-up quarterback Darriel Mack, who started last season’s 37-10 win in Greenville, threw one pass for a 33-yard score in the first 30 minutes.
Houston had prepared his team to face both quarterbacks. ECU also practiced in the rain on Wednesday with the possibility of showers in the forecast but precipitation held off for the contest on the CBS Sports Network.
UCF won the opening toss and deferred. The Knights were pushed back to their own 4-yard line by a penalty to start their first series, but got to the end zone in eight plays to score on a 1-yard keeper by Gabriel with 10:09 left in the first quarter.
UCF’s first-half total of 418 yards was boosted by a 32-yard scoring run by Ben Thompson with two seconds left in the first quarter for a 21-0 lead.
The Pirates got on the board on a 25-yard field goal by Jake Verity with 12:36 left in the half.
That extended ECU’s string of games without being shut out to 273, the 10th longest such streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The last time the Pirates didn’t score was on Oct. 4, 1997, in a 56-0 loss at Syracuse.
Verity’s initial boot pushed ECU’s string of games with a field goal to 18. Verity added a 40-yarder as time expired in the first half to pull the Pirates within 35-6 at the break.
UCF wound up with a 611-483 lead in total yardage but the margin was 303-193 in favor of the Pirates for the second half.
Ahlers completed 23 of 37 for 313 yards with one TD and one pick. ECU netted 170 yards on the ground.
“I didn’t know if we were going to weather it for awhile,” Houston said of UCF’s early dominance.
The Pirates weathered the storm and sailed into the remainder of the season with something on which to build.