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.”
Great game with a not so great ending. But, if the effort shown in this game continues, the wins will come.
Don tyson says
We are getting a toughness not seen in in many years. Bearcats came in to our house an attempted to bully us, we answered!! Freshman &sophmores learn how to close it out, but the didn’t take being pushed around ! They hit us in the face , we hit em back in the mouth!!!! Proud of my PIRATES!!
Gus Chiggins says
in two years, we will have a winning program ad Houston will be coaching in the SEC
bill forbes says
Pirates gave it their all. No blowout here! Big needs remain: Upgrade in LB’s, better run blocking by OL (but congrats on protecting Holton), more quality depth on D-line. Houston will get it done, I believe.
C.J. Johnson is a beast. Other receivers are coming along. Hard to criticize Holton after this game… his stats were ridiculous. He’s growing.
SMU will either be in a funk after losing to Memphis, or fired up to take it out on ECU. We will have to score in bunches to keep up with them, unless our D shows vast improvement.
A tough year for the team and new staff, but one can sniff change in the air. Go Pirates!
Irish Spectre says
It’s not popular to say, but there ARE moral victories. They’re usually necessary to get to the actual goal, and last night was a huge one.
Kudos to both sides of the ball, up and down the roster, especially the Q, his receiver corps and (incredibly!!) the OL.
Several of those dumb-ass Cinn. penalties were due to their massive arrogance, thinking they were going to waltz in to D-W, and waltz out with the “W.” ECU saw things a little differently, and that offended the Bearcats. The Pirates played with a lot of pride.
David E Turnage says
Please update the recruiting information as there has been 3 additions and one deletion since this was last updated. Thanks
Danny Whitford says
David: The updating of the recruiting thumbnails page is back in gear. We apologize for the interruption, which was due to some posting issues. — Danny Whitford, Editor