GREENVILLE — Tulane’s 38-21 American Athletic Conference victory at East Carolina on Saturday did not progress as anticipated in terms of competitiveness, playing style or continuity of improvement that the Pirates had exhibited recently.
The Green Wave was rated a slim 3-point favorite but had a commanding 31-7 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Tulane was regarded as a run-oriented team offensively but passed on its first five snaps in driving 78 yards to take a 7-0 lead. Freshman quarterback Micheal Pratt completed 22 of 34 for 216 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
ECU had been limited to 50 yards rushing in a 49-29 loss at Georgia State on Oct. 3. Since then, the Pirates ran for 210 yards in a 44-24 win at South Florida, 268 yards in a 27-23 loss to Navy and 126 yards in a 34-30 setback at Tulsa.
Freshman running back Rahjai Harris had become the face of the run game’s resurgence with 119 yards against the Bulls, 173 yards against the Midshipmen and 118 yards against the Golden Hurricane. Harris had 21 of ECU’s 28 carries at Tulsa.
Harris managed just 27 yards on 13 carries against the Green Wave as the Pirates netted just 35 yards on the ground. Contributing to ECU’s lowest rushing total of the season were five sacks and the need to go to the air after the visitors had built a significant lead.
“I think we’ve got to look at the film,” said Pirates coach Mike Houston. “Obviously, they did a great job and they had a solid plan to take (the run game) away from us. We’ve got to see why that happened. I know that several times today we’d have one guy getting beat for one reason or another. We’ve got to look at why that happened. Did that happen because of technique? Did that happen because we’re tipping something formationally or alignment-wise?
“We’ve got to figure out just why that happened and they were able to nullify us to the extent they did today.”
The offensive line’s improved performance had been an instrumental factor in the promise the Pirates had shown over the last three games. ECU was without quarterback Holton Ahlers against Navy and the AAC admitted to a decisive error by the officials at Tulsa.
There were no excuses Saturday as Tulane improved to 4-4 overall and 2-4 in league play while the Pirates slipped to 1-5 and 1-4 going into a conference contest at No. 6 Cincinnati (6-0) on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
ECU drove 75 yards on its first possession to tie the score at 7 on a 10-yard pass play from Ahlers to Tyler Snead, who made a great effort to get into the end zone with 6:48 left in the first quarter.
Ahlers completed 27 of 43 passes for 351 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Pirates converted a 4th-and-4 on their first series as Ahlers found Blake Proehl for a 5-yard gain to the Tulane 39. Proehl had 13 catches for 182 yards with two TDs.
ECU lost possession on downs at the Tulane 46 with 9:26 left in the first half and the Wave used the opportunity to take the lead for keeps on a 5-yard scoring pass from Pratt to Tyrick James at 7:28 before the break.
A 52-yard field goal attempt by Jake Verity was partially blocked with 3:36 to go in the half and Tulane took advantage with a 65-yard drive to go ahead 21-7 on a 5-yard pass from Pratt to Duece Watts with 38 seconds left in the half.
ECU made a fourth-down stop at its own 15 before the Wave went up 28-7 on a 48-yard scoring run by Cameron Carroll. The margin increased to 31-7 on a 42-yard field goal by Merek Glover with 38 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Pirates closed the gap in the final period. A 30-yard scoring pass to Proehl and a 2-point toss to Tyler Snead got ECU within 31-15. Tulane got a 28-yard touchdown run from Carroll before Proehl had a 75-yard catch and run for a TD.
The conversion pass failed after the Pirates had pulled within 38-21 with 5:07 to go. Jireh Wilson recovered the ensuing onside kick for ECU but Ahlers was stripped on the next snap and the visitors recovered.
The Pirates were 3-for-15 on third-down conversions and were 1-for-4 on fourth down.
“I think at halftime we were 1-for-6 on third downs,” Ahlers said. “We preach third downs. We practice third downs probably more than anyone in the country. We missed a fourth down, too. Third and fourth down, you’ve got to win there. They were winning theirs and we weren’t winning ours and that’s what it kind of came down to.”
C.J. Johnson had four catches for 79 yards for ECU. Snead had five grabs for 46 yards.
Inside linebacker Bruce Bivens was in on 13 tackles with four solo stops for the Pirates. Safety Warren Saba had nine stops with five unassisted tackles. Ja’Quan McMillian had an interception in the fourth quarter.
A lengthy offensive lull after ECU’s first score proved too much to overcome, but the big picture looks better, according to ECU’s junior quarterback.
“We’re better than what we showed today,” Ahlers said. “Everybody knows that. … We know we’re close. We’re as close as we’ve been since any of us have been here. We had a good game last year versus Cincinnati and we’re going to go up there and try to pull off the upset against a great team there.
The Pirates fell just short of a statement win against the then-17th-ranked Bearcats in Greenville last season, but will be the visiting team in Nippert Stadium Friday night in a 7:30 p.m. game that will be televised on ESPN2.
Cincinnati was No. 6 in the current AP poll before its thrashing of Houston on Saturday, but could conceivably move up a notch after 8th-ranked Florida beat No. 5 Georgia on Saturday.
“We know we’re a game away, a play away. … That’s what motivates us every single day,” said Ahlers. “We feel it changing. We see it changing. We’ve just got to keep pressing.”