EAST HARTFORD, CT — East Carolina’s quest for a fourth win in a football season had gone unfulfilled since 2015, but the Pirates climbed above the disappointing and frustrating redundancy of three straight 3-9 seasons by closing out a 31-24 American Athletic Conference win at Connecticut on Saturday in dramatic fashion.
With the Huskies going for a 4th-and-goal at the Pirates’ 5-yard line, senior cornerback Colby Gore intercepted and went down at the ECU 1-yard line with one second left.
The Pirates improved to 4-7 going into a home game Saturday at noon against Tulsa on Senior Day.
“Win No. 4,” said first-year coach Mike Houston. “First time since 2015, right? Don’t underestimate just what that means to our team and especially to the players that have been here, the seniors. They’ve talked about it . That celebration in there was a good one. One of their goals at the beginning of the season was leave the program better than we found it.
“They wanted desperately to do some things this year. Some of those things we still have a chance to accomplish, but winning No. 4 is a significant step toward that. I’m really proud of the way the kids fought back. … Great goal-line stand there to win the ball game.”
ECU took a 24-14 lead into the fourth quarter at Pratt & Whitney Stadium, but the Huskies (2-9) pulled even at 24 on a 94-yard scoring pass from Jack Zergiotis to Cameron Ross with 9:28 remaining.
Both teams were 0-6 in the AAC coming into the game.
The offense put the outcome in the defense’s hands as Holton Ahlers scored on a 2-yard keeper with 3:28 to play, putting the Pirates ahead, 31-24. ECU drove 68 yards after Clayton Harris missed a 50-yard field goal try with 6:59 to go that would have put the Huskies in front.
Darius Pinnix Jr. came back from an 8-game absence to gain 105 yards on 27 carries with two touchdowns. He got stronger as the game progressed. He ran nine times for 46 yards in the fourth quarter, including four rushes for 35 yards on the Pirates’ last scoring series. Pinnix will still be eligible to count 2019 as a redshirt year after being sidelined following the second game of the season.
Ahlers had two runs for 22 yards and found Tyler Snead on two passes for nine yards after UConn had tied the score.
“The defense gave me some run lanes and I took them,” Ahlers said. “There were a couple of draws. They were good play calls, but I just took what the defense gave me.”
Ahlers completed 34 of 50 passes for 374 yards with one TD and two picks. His 17-yard scoring pass to sophomore Zech Byrd gave the Pirates a 17-7 lead at the half.
Jake Verity had a 26-yard field goal in the first quarter to cut UConn’s lead to 7-3. Pinnix leaped into the end zone from 3 yards out with 1:11 left in the first quarter for a 10-7 ECU advantage.
Verity had a school record streak for made field goals end at 13 when he was wide on a 46-yarder in the third quarter.
Pinnix scored on a 1-yard run from a power set in the third period as the Pirates extended their advantage to 24-14.
“It was great to be back out there with my brothers,” Pinnix said.
UConn had a 527-509 lead in total yards, but ECU won the turnover battle, 3-2, and had significantly fewer penalty yards (38-80).
Running back Kevin Mensah of the Huskies had a string of 100-yard-plus rushing games halted as he totaled 75 yards on 20 carries. UConn took up the slack through the air as Zergiotis threw for 418 yards.
The numbers became irrelevant as Zergiotis took a snap in shotgun formation after both teams took timeouts with eight seconds to go.
“We decided to play coverage, instead of pressure,” Houston said. “We had been showing a lot of pressure. We called timeout after the first timeout when they showed us the formation. The kids did a good job. We worked on that a good bit this week in the red zone and playing that coverage right there.”
The Pirates had failed to make a 4th-down stop in seven previous opportunities against Southern Methodist and UConn, but Gore changed that.
“The quarterback didn’t have anywhere to go with the ball,” Houston said. “Great job by Colby.”
ECU sang its fight song in the locker room and made its first plane flight home from a win since Sept. 24, 2017 when the Pirates held off UConn, 41-38, on a Sunday. That was also ECU’s last AAC win away from home, stopping a league losing streak that had reached 10 games on the road.
“It was a lot of joy,” Gore said after the last pass had spiraled into his gloves and he went to the turf. “I don’t know if I’ve ever felt anything like that.”
“I think I was happier than he was,” said senior defensive end Kendall Futrell, who had six solo tackles with a sack.
The Pirates had lost close games with nationally-ranked Cincinnati and SMU before taking on the Huskies, who are leaving the AAC for independent status after this season.
ECU athletic director Jon Gilbert sat in on the postgame interviews and noted that he feels good about the direction of the program.
“I think Coach Houston and his staff have done a good job building this team,” Gilbert said. “Certainly, we want to try to win every game, but I think our fan base clearly can see that this team is making progress from a competitive standpoint. We still have a ways to go and I think everybody understands that.
“I think the culture that’s being established is something. That foundation is set and I think there are a lot of positive things to come.”
Four wins obviously is not the objective but it does show improvement.
“Five would be even better,” Houston said.