GREENVILLE — There was no happy ending for the 2019 East Carolina football season on Saturday as Tulsa piled up 669 yards of offense in a 49-24 American Athletic Conference win at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The Pirates (4-8, 1-7 AAC) scored first on a 51-yard field goal by Jake Verity with 1:42 left in the first quarter, but the Golden Hurricane (4-8, 2-6) was ahead 28-3 before ECU scored again in the second half.
It was not the performance the Pirates had sought on Senior Day.
“Obviously, a disappointing day,” said first-year ECU coach Mike Houston. “A disappointing end to this first season together. It’s disappointing because we have higher expectations for our program than this.
“That is a positive. We expect to be competitive with any team in this league. We expect to be able to go out and play games at a very, very high level and be able to win any given Saturday.”
Tulsa junior quarterback Zach Smith, a transfer from Baylor, directed a balanced offense. Smith completed 21 of 30 passes for 331 yards with five touchdowns and one interception.
Junior Shamari Brooks had 16 carries for 202 yards, an average of 12.6 yards per rush, as the visitors gained 338 yards on the ground.
Tulsa led 21-3 at halftime and had the ball to start the second half. That possession ended with an interception by ECU safety Davondre “Tank” Robinson at midfield.
Hopes for the start of a comeback by the Pirates took a hit as Jsi Hatfield fumbled on the next play. Reggie Robinson II recovered and returned the ball to the ECU 21-yard line.
Tulsa extended its lead to 28-3 on a 10-yard run by T.K. Wilkerson with 11:40 left in the third quarter.
“We had some momentum right there,” Houston said of the pick by Robinson. “We had a take-a-shot play called. A freshman (Hatfield) was an integral player right there and he made a mistake with the ball. Fundamentals right there and he put the ball on the ground.
“That was a situation where we wanted to be very aggressive. Coming out of the half, we got the stop. You get the turnover and now you have a chance to take a shot and get back in the ball game. Unfortunately, we gave it back to them.”
The Golden Hurricane led 35-10 going to the fourth quarter and Corey Taylor II’s 12-yard scoring run with 14:31 left pushed the advantage to 42-10.
Holton Ahlers completed 27 of 48 passes for the Pirates for 308 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Blake Proehl had eight catches for 89 yards and two scores for ECU. C.J. Johnson had six receptions for 141 yards with a TD. Tyler Snead’s seven catches totaled 55 yards.
ECU’s running game, which had gotten 105 yards last week from Darius Pinnix Jr. in a 31-24 win at Connecticut, managed just 75 yards on 29 rushes against Tulsa.
The Golden Hurricane had its previous AAC win against Central Florida, 34-31, on Nov. 8.
“There’s nothing I want to take away from Tulsa,” Houston said. “We’ve talked about it all week. We could obviously see on film that they were an extremely talented football team. Coach (Philip) Montgomery has been there for several years. These are his kids that he has recruited and developed. They are a very physical team. They are a very explosive team. They made the plays they needed to in order to win the ball game today.
“At the end of the day that’s what we didn’t do. Too many mistakes on the defensive side of the football that resulted in explosive plays. Those are things that you can’t have.”
The Pirates had produced 1,791 yards of offense in their previous three games but were not as effective moving the ball in the closing game of the season.
“We had a good bead on the breakdown of what they were going to do,” Houston said. ” … They did a good job of taking away a lot of the crossing routes because they did drop so many at times. The disappointing thing was that we weren’t any more effective running the football. If a team is going to play a lot of coverage, then, obviously, you’ve got to run the football better.”
“We knew they were very good up front and they were very good at the linebacker level so we knew it was going to be a challenge.”
Houston was asked if the team had a good week of preparation.
“We had a good week of practice,” Houston said. “Does Thanksgiving and change of routine, can that throw kids off sometimes? Yeah, especially with a young team, but we had a very good walk-through yesterday. We were very good this morning. … We gave up a couple of big plays and we lost a lot of steam in our sails. We’ve got to continue to grow up.
“When we eat the pregame meal, it blows you away because we eat by class. … Seniors … juniors … sophomores, … that goes pretty fast. When I tell freshmen to get something to eat, half the room stands up. We’ve got to continue to grow them up. Teach them how to fight and overcome adversity. Teach them how to play this game the right way.”
ECU’s top tacklers on Saturday all will be back. True freshman safety Juan Powell had seven solo stops and was in on 10 tackles. Robinson, a junior, also was in on 10 stops. Sophomore linebacker Gerard Stringer was credited with nine tackles and sophomore linebacker Delvontae Harris was involved in eight tackles.
Houston said the coaching staff would be on the recruiting trail quickly to solidify the upcoming class for signing day on Wednesday, Dec. 18.
“We need to get bigger, faster, stronger,” Houston said.
The former coach at Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel and James Madison noted that next week would mark his one-year anniversary on the job at ECU.
“We’ve created expectations to go out there and be able to win these ball games,” Houston said. “We should have those expectations. I’ve got to take a look at everything we’ve done. Just because it worked for us some other place doesn’t mean it’s what we need to do here.
“I do think we accomplished a lot. We grew so much but it’s obvious we’ve got to continue to develop, not only as players but what we’re doing as coaches.
“We’ve got to continue to develop. This is a highly-competitive league. I’m excited to be in this league. I think East Carolina is in the right place, but we’ve got to understand that everybody in this league is highly committed to playing football at a very, very high level. We’ve all got to be committed to doing the same things that everyone else is doing if we’re going to be competitive at a high level.”.
Houston took the ECU job just days after a 58-3 loss at N.C. State closed the 2018 season.
Senior center Braden Pena said the program has a different mindset after the final game of 2019.
“Last year, I could describe it in one word, defeated,” Pena said. “I felt like the team was defeated. I felt like we didn’t know what was going to happen next. The locker room has changed. I know this team is going to go headfirst into the offseason. They’re going to do what needs to be done and, mark my words, you’re going to see a different team.”
The Pirates are scheduled to open the 2020 season at home against Marshall on Sept. 5.