GREENVILLE — East Carolina had a good shot to knock off No. 17 Cincinnati on Saturday night and show the college football world that there is substance to the rebuilding efforts under first-year Pirates coach Mike Houston.
The Bearcats avoided an upset with a 32-yard field goal by Sam Crosa as time expired for a 46-43 win.
ECU kicker Jake Verity had tied the score at 43 with a 27-yarder with 1:10 to go.
“We talked this afternoon before we came over about what an incredible opportunity and all the teams through the years that have had these moments, their program-turning moments,” Houston said. “We had such a good end to the week with practice and preparation. …
“It’s so tough to win college football games.”
The Pirates slipped to 3-6 overall and 0-5 in the American Athletic Conference despite leading 40-28 going into the fourth quarter.
The game’s defining moment came as Ahmad Gardner returned an interception 62 yards to put Cincinnati ahead 41-40 with 4:38 to go. A 2-point conversion pass from Desmind Ridder to tight end Josiah Deguara gave the Bearcats a 43-40 advantage.
“I made a decision there at the end that cost us on a pick six,” said ECU sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers. “That one’s on me. A win would mean a lot more but we’ll get better from it.
“It was a play call. It was a hitch. We threw it early on. It was off coverage. He kind of baited me into it. I should have known that he was going to bait me. I’ve just got to learn from it.”
Ahlers completed 32 of 52 passes for 535 yards with four touchdowns and the lone pick. The yardage broke the single game school record of 480 set by Shane Carden in 2013.
Ahlers also had a 6-yard TD run as ECU tied the score at 14 with 3:22 left in the first quarter.
Ahlers’ former D.H. Conley High School teammate, C.J. Johnson, had 12 catches for 283 yards, eclipsing the previous school record of 270 receiving yards set by Trevon Brown in a 48-20 home win over Cincinnati in 2017. Johnson’s total also broke the AAC single-game record.
“It’s always good to have a good game, but without the win, it’s just another game,” Johnson said. “Very tough. We had ’em.”
Blake Proehl had 8 catches for 105 yards. Jsi Hatfield had 6 receptions for 96 yards.
Johnson hauled in a 75-yard touchdown from Ahlers to tie the score at 7.
Down 21-14, the Pirates outscored Cincinnati (7-1, 4-0 AAC) by a 17-0 margin in the second quarter. The flurry included a 3-yard scoring toss from Ahlers to Zech Byrd, a 3-yard TD pass to Hatfield and a 27-yard field goal by Verity with one second left in the half.
ECU went to halftime with a 31-21 lead.
Michael Warren had 12 carries for 146 yards for Cincinnati. Ridder ran 18 times for 141 yards. Ridder completed 12 of 24 passes for 161 yards and one score. He was intercepted twice by Pirates safety Daniel Charles.
The second pass that Charles picked off led to the field goal at the close of the first half.
A 20-yard field goal by Verity put the Pirates ahead 34-28 with 4:20 left in the third quarter. Tyler Snead hauled in a 9-yard TD pass from Ahlers for a 40-28 lead with 14 seconds remaining in the third period.
The visitors closed within 40-35 on a 3-yard scoring pass from Ridder to Deguara with 8:37 left.
“We’re going to look tomorrow at 20 different plays and if you make any one of them, you win the game,” Houston said. ” … Our locker room is very quiet. They invested a lot. When you invest a lot, it hurts when you don’t achieve what you set out to achieve.
“The one thing I told them in there, ‘This continues to validate everything we’re doing.”
The Pirates had a 638-487 lead in total yardage. The sum ranks eighth in ECU history.
The Pirates travel to Southern Methodist (8-1, 4-1) for a noon kickoff on Saturday (ESPN2 or ESPNU).
“We’ve been working so hard for so long,” Charles said. “Close games like this, we’ve got to pull through.”