DALLAS — Close doesn’t count for East Carolina coach Mike Houston and his first-year Pirates football team.
For the second straight week, ECU had a chance to beat a nationally-ranked team and for the second straight week, the opportunity went unfulfilled as No. 25 Southern Methodist used an unlikely sequence in the fourth quarter to take a 59-51 American Athletic Conference win on Saturday at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.
The Pirates were coming off a 46-43 home loss to No. 17 Cincinnati.
“That stinks,” Houston said after the matchup with the Mustangs. “Just an incredible effort by our kids, an incredible effort by SMU’s kids. They’re a very, very good football team. … You can see why they’re one of the top-ranked teams in the country.
“I hurt for our kids because they fight. They are resilient. I mean they listen. I’m just really, really hurting for them. … They’re winners and it’s only a matter of time. We’re right there on the threshold, obviously, but to beat the better teams in this conference, we’ve got to correct some mistakes. We’ve got some that you just can’t make.”
ECU trailed 45-44 and had SMU in a 4th-and-20 at the Pirates’ 31-yard line, but Shane Buechele found tight end Kylen Granson for a touchdown to put the hosts ahead, 52-44 with 7:25 left.
“We’re a man free, got a post safety,” Houston said. “Should be sitting right there on the field, should have tight man coverage underneath. If you ask me what’s the best defense you can call against the play they ran, I’d say that right there. Got to make the play. … No excuse.”
On the ensuing kickoff, there was a mix-up between deep man Tyler Snead and true freshman Jsi Hatfield. The resulting muff was recovered by the Mustangs at the ECU 22. Buechele’s fifth touchdown pass gave SMU a 59-44 lead with 4:18 to go.
“That’s my fault,” Snead said. “I was calling it, but it wasn’t loud enough and that’s my job to make it known. That was the second time that game that I wasn’t loud enough.”
Snead’s stats spoke loudly as he became the go-to receiver when C.J. Johnson went out with an injury. Snead had 19 catches for 240 yards with three TDs.
Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers completed 32 of 42 passes for 498 yards with six touchdowns. It was the second most passing yards in ECU history, just behind Ahlers’ 535 last week against the Bearcats.
His six TDs were a school record. The Pirates have had five passing touchdowns in a game nine times, the last by Philip Nelson against Western Carolina on Sept. 3, 2016.
Ahlers found UCLA transfer Audie Omotosho on a 22-yard score with 1:55 to go to cut the lead to 59-51. Omotosho played on the high school level at nearby Plano, TX.
ECU tried an onside kick unsuccessfully after Omotosho’s TD. SMU went 5-for-5 on 4th-down conversions, the last time on a 4th-and-3 at the Pirates’ 39 after a timeout with 55 seconds left.
“That’s real frustrating,” said ECU free safety Davondre “Tank” Robinson. “Knowing we got ’em in 3rd-down situations and they’re going for it on fourth and completing it. We got to get off the field and get the offense back out there.”
The last time the Pirates played the Ponies in 2016, SMU won 55-31 in Greenville as ECU had five turnovers.
The Mustangs’ offense made the difference this time although the Pirates had a 644-636 lead in total yardage.
Xavier Jones had 20 carries for 157 yards and three TDs for the hosts.
ECU led 31:05 to 28:55 in possession time. The Pirates had one penalty for 15 yards while SMU drew three flags for nine yards. Jonn Young averaged 42 yards on four punts for ECU.
But SMU improved to 9-1 overall and 5-1 in the AAC while the Pirates dropped to 3-7 overall and 0-6 in the league going into a bye week. ECU visits Connecticut on Nov. 23. Houston said he expects Johnson and running back Trace Christian to be back against the Huskies.
The Pirates tied the score at 7 on a 68-yard pass from Ahlers to Hatfield in the first quarter. Jake Verity’s 37-yard field goal as the first half expired got ECU within 28-20. Snead had a 36-yard scoring reception in the second quarter.
The Pirates got a 32-yard run from Demetrius Mauney on the first possession of the second half and closed the gap to 28-27 on a 45-yard pass play with Zech Byrd bobbling the ball on the run before gathering it in.
Houston said he and offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick had a 2-point conversion play in mind but were saving it for later in the game. Snead had a 47-yard scoring catch with 8:06 left in the third to close the gap to 35-34.
Tay Williams ran 14 times for 61 yards for ECU. Mauney had 43 yards on eight carries. Ahlers ran eight times for a net of 25 yards. Ahlers was the Pirates’ leading rusher in 2018.
“It’s just kind of whatever the defense gives me,” Ahlers said. “I know that I can run the ball, but I can throw the ball, too. … At the end of the day, it’s doing whatever will help the team win.”
Despite showing improvement and more competitiveness, the Pirates are in a 5-game losing streak that has dropped them out of bowl contention.
“Got to get over that hump,” Robinson said. “It’s real frustrating. We can’t solidify the Dub (win).”
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