TULSA (Via ESPN2) — East Carolina scored a go-ahead touchdown with 4:18 remaining for a 30-27 lead at Tulsa before three calls on the Golden Hurricane’s ensuing possession enabled an outcome that will go down as a 34-30 loss for the Pirates.
ECU coach Mike Houston said athletic director Jon Gilbert was in communication with the American Athletic Conference office regarding the officiating minutes after the game ended.
“The kids played their butts off,” Houston said. “We should be sitting here singing the fight song right now.”
Holton Ahlers found true freshman Rahjai Harris on 4th-and-goal at the Tulsa 4-yard line as the Pirates retook the lead with 4:18 left to finish an 85-yard drive.
Tulsa got plenty of help from referee Anthony Calabrese and crew on the deciding series that was capped by a 1-yard run by T.K. Wilkerson with 29 seconds to go.
On 4th-and-10 at the Tulsa 43, Warren Saba reached around receiver Josh Johnson to deflect a pass from Zach Smith. A flag was thrown for pass interference from an official about 30 yards downfield. Replay showed that Saba did grasp Johnson’s left arm with his left hand in the process of breaking up the pass with his right hand.
“The pass interference call is a judgement call on fourth down,” Houston said. “Obviously, there must have been something there for them to call it. Usually, you don’t see that call on fourth down, so it must have been pretty blatant.”
A subsequent play that was ruled a lost fumble on the field was reversed. Wilkerson carried to the ECU 37 on the play.
“It must have been very obvious because usually you wouldn’t overturn that,” Houston said. “Late in a ball game like that you would not overturn it unless it was obvious.”
ECU’s Jireh Wilson appeared to loosen the ball from Wilkerson’s grasp as he went to the ground. Calabrese said Wilkerson had possession when his knee hit the turf.
The most questionable call came on 4th-and-5 at the 32 as the ball plowed up turf pellets at the end of a play that was ruled a catch by Johnson, Smith’s intended receiver, at the ECU 19.
“The video that they showed on the Jumbotron shows the ball bouncing,” Houston said. “You could clearly see that it hit the ground … even as he was making the catch. The ball’s on the ground so I don’t understand how it got ruled a catch.
“I’m not the replay official, but that’s what I saw on the Jumbotron. On the video, we all saw it. As coaches, we were talking about how much time we had left and how we were going to kill the clock.”
After Tulsa went ahead with 29 seconds to go, ECU got a 36-yard kickoff return by Keaton Mitchell to the Tulsa 44.
On the last play of the game from the Tulsa 29, Ahlers threw incomplete in the end zone for C.J. Johnson in a crowd. There was plenty of contact as the ball descended but no call was made.
Ahlers completed 38 of 50 passes for 330 yards with three touchdowns and one interception after missing the Pirates’ last game, a 27-23 home loss to Navy, due to COVID-19 protocols.
Ahlers had scoring passes of 16 yards to Tyler Snead and 25 yards to Johnson as ECU, an 18.5-point underdog, led 17-3 at the half.
The Pirates settled for field goals of 22 yards in the third quarter and 38 yards in the fourth quarter by Jake Verity, but Houston went for a touchdown and got it on the fourth down with under five minutes to go.
Johnson lined up wide on the left and slanted in on the snap. Harris released to the left and Ahlers hit him underneath for the score.
“We had a handful of plays for that situation right there,” Houston said. “That was one that Coach (Donnie) Kirkpatrick (offensive coordinator) and them worked on all week. Pre-snap, the look was there so we felt like as long as we executed well — Holton made a very good throw and Rahjai was right there to make the catch. Big play, gave us the lead.
“I just felt like in that situation right there we couldn’t kick a field goal. We had to take the lead. We had to go for it. From about the 30-yard line in, we were in four-down mode.”
Harris ran 21 times for 118 yards. Snead had 16 catches for 108 yards. Audie Omotosho had seven receptions for 76 yards and Blake Proehl’s six grabs accounted for 69 yards.
Smith, who threw for five touchdowns in a 49-24 win in Greenville last season, completed 19 of 37 for 253 yards with two TDs and two picks. Shawn Dourseau and Saba had interceptions for ECU.
Wilson, a sophomore outside linebacker, led the Pirates in tackles with nine, including seven solos and 1.5 sacks.
The Pirates led 456-428 in total yardage. ECU had an advantage of more than 10 minutes (35:09 to 24:51) in possession time.
The Pirates (1-4, 1-3 AAC) had 13 penalties for 105 yards while Tulsa (3-1, 3-0) drew 10 flags for 109 yards. Both teams had three turnovers.
“The effort all ball game by everybody,” Houston said of the performance that came up short on the scoreboard. “You go on the road against a team of that caliber and outplay them the way that you did … I’ve coached over 200 ball games and I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
Tulsa’s lone loss was to Oklahoma State (4-0), now ranked No. 6, by a 16-7 margin in the Golden Hurricane’s season opener on Sept. 19.
Houston said he didn’t know what to say to his team afterward, but he knows what must happen next.
“:We’ve got to get ready for Tulane,” said the second-year ECU coach.
The Pirates host the Green Wave on Saturday, Nov. 7, at noon.