We’ve seen the movie before. Many times, in fact, over the past three seasons.
And it doesn’t end well.
After 30 minutes of play at Central Florida on Saturday, the East Carolina football team trudged toward its halftime locker room with a 35-6 deficit weighing on its collective shoulders like an overloaded barbell waiting to be lifted on a squat rack.
It’s an all-too-familiar script that typically plays out with an equally lopsided second half, a basketball-like score for the opposition and a final margin even larger than the 35½-point spread the Las Vegas oddsmakers set for this particular game.
Only this time, it didn’t happen.
Instead of going through the motions to an inevitably embarrassing ending, this group of Pirates regrouped and fought back.
They didn’t rally to win the game. That kind of thing only happens in the movies.
But by outplaying the Knights over the final two quarters — while outscoring them 22-6 — Coach Mike Houston and his fledgling program reached yet another important milestone on the long road back toward respectability.
One that graphically illustrated their ability to play on something close to even terms with one of the best teams in the American Athletic Conference.
“We ran out of time,” an optimistic Houston said after the 41-28 setback. “We just couldn’t convert enough there in the second half. We had our shots. I wish we just had a couple of those chances back there in the red zone.”
One of those chances ended in a Holton Ahlers interception two plays after a holding penalty put the Pirates behind the chains. Another resulted in a chip shot Jake Verity field goal rather than a touchdown. ECU also came up empty on a pair of two-point conversion attempts.
But even with those misfires, Ahlers and his offense still managed to roll up 322 yards and three touchdowns in the second half.
And it wasn’t a fluke.
What makes the second half surge so promising is that all three sides of the ball played major roles in producing it.
Offensively, Ahlers showed glimpses of his blue chip potential by throwing for 313 yards and continuing to build chemistry with his former high school teammate C.J. Johnson, who caught eight passes and notched his second straight 100-yard game.
Freshman running back Demetrius Mauney, meanwhile, continued to give the Pirates the kind of effective ground attack they have sorely lacked in recent years by rushing for 74 yards and a score on a career-high 21 carries.
Defensively, AAC sack leader Kendall Futrell forced a key turnover that ECU turned into points when he forced UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel into a fumble that was recovered by teammate Alex Turner.
There was also a big play on special teams, with wide receiver Leroy Henley blocking a punt that Jsi Hatfield picked up and nearly returned for a touchdown that was achieved one play later on a short Mauney run.
Though ECU never got closer than the final 13-point margin — and even then, not until the final two minutes of the game — it succeeded in putting the Knights under enough duress that they abandoned their fast-paced attack to run clock and shorten the game.
“That up-tempo, high-tempo offense that everybody was worrying about, they’re having to milk the clock there at the end of the ballgame to put it away,” Houston said. “If nothing else, I think our team has shown this ain’t the old ECU.”
It can make an even louder statement by doing more than just showing its ability to put up a good fight. The next important box to check off is playing two strong halves like the one it finished with on Saturday and rewriting their script to include a newer, happier ending.
It will get just such an opportunity on Saturday against South Florida at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“I’m really proud of the kids the second half,” Houston said. “We’ve just got to get where we finish the ballgames with a win. But we’re getting better.”