GREENVILLE — Homecoming couldn’t have started much better for East Carolina on Saturday than a 100-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff by junior Tyler Snead.
The play took 15 seconds. Snead’s Eastward trek from goal line to goal line was easily the highlight for ECU as the remaining 59 minutes and 45 seconds were controlled for the most part by South Florida in a 45-20 American Athletic Conference win for the Bulls.
USF (4-4, 2-2 AAC) answered with a 10-play, 75-yard drive to tie the score at 7 on a 5-yard run by Jordan Cronkrite. The Bulls pushed the margin to 35-7 before Jake Verity made a 33-yard field goal for the Pirates as the first half ended.
Cronkrite ran for 129 yards and two TDs on 12 carries.
“It was a great way to start the day,” said first-year ECU coach Mike Houston of the opening foray by Snead. “The stadium was electric. A great job by the return team, a great job by Tyler. We’ve been talking all year that we thought we had that ability. We had to keep working at it. It’s good to see us finally make the play.
“If we could have gotten a stop on defense, what a great way to start the game off. But I did think they took a little bit of wind out of our sails the way they drove down and scored.”
The Bulls built their lead with the help of some turnovers by the Pirates.
ECU true freshman running back Demetrius Mauney lost a fumble at the Bulls’ 11-yard line with 3:14 left in the first quarter. The Bulls capitalized with an 89-yard drive that took just five plays as Jacob Mathis gathered in a 21-yard scoring pass from Jordan McCloud with 7:46 to go in the first half.
Down 21-7 after an 18-yard scoring toss from McCloud to Randall St. Felix, the Pirates drove from their 30 as far as the USF 13 before an interception by Greg Reaves was brought back to the ECU 39.
Jah’Quez Evans, one of three quarterbacks that played for USF, ran 34 yards for a touchdown to put USF ahead, 28-7 with 3:51 left in the half.
Cronkrite’s second TD came from 10 yards out with 19 seconds to go in the half. Mauney had runs of 16 and 18 yards on the ensuing hurry-up possession for the Pirates before an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Bulls put the Pirates well within Verity’s range.
“Two turnovers in the red zone,” Houston said about the 35-10 first-half deficit. “You punch those two in, the tide of the game is completely different. The one (Reaves’ pick) got returned almost the distance.
“We had opportunities where it would have been a blow-for-blow kind of deal. It could have been something, 21-17, one way or the other kind of game there at halftime. It could have been that kind of ball game at the half, but we can’t make those critical errors down there in the red zone.
“It’s two weeks in a row that we’ve done that. You’ve got to capitalize down there at that end of the field.”
Last week at Central Florida, the Pirates trailed 35-6 at the half and closed within 35-22 before a lost fumble and a pick, both in Knights territory, derailed the comeback bid.
A blocked punt started the rally at UCF, but there was no such spark at Homecoming.
The Bulls got a 24-yard field goal from Spencer Shrader for the only points of the third quarter.
USF went up 45-10 as Kirk Rygol hit Terrence Horne for a 24-yard touchdown with 11:57 remaining.
The Bulls finished with a 525-324 lead in total yardage.
ECU completed the scoring on a 34-yard field goal by Verity and a 5-yard scoring pass to Jeremy Lewis from back-up quarterback Bryan Gagg.
The Pirates (3-5, 0-4) were able to make the final score appear a little more respectable but that was little in the way of consolation for Houston, whose team will face No. 18 Cincinnati (6-1, 3-0) at home on Saturday at 7 p.m.
“Certainly very disappointed with the outcome of the ball game,” Houston said. “It’s not what we expect from ourselves. It’s not what we want to be.
“Too many critical errors at the wrong time. We put ourselves in bad situations and did not take advantage of some opportunities we had. You can’t do that if you’re going to win a game against a good football team in this conference.”