GREENVILLE — East Carolina overwhelmed visiting Southern Methodist in the first half and withstood a Mustangs comeback for a 52-38 American Athletic Conference victory
on Saturday that left Pirates feeling favorably about their football future.
It was an upset in terms of SMU’s status as a 13-point favorite but ECU was clearly a superior team for the 30 minutes that generated a 45-7 lead at halftime.
Offense, defense and special teams meshed as the Pirates (3-6, 3-5 AAC) built a commanding cushion that the Mustangs (7-3, 4-3) could not overcome.
“An incredibly impressive performance by our players,” said ECU coach Mike Houston. “I’ve been waiting on this game. I didn’t know when it was going to happen.”
After a defensive stop on the game’s first possession, Australian Luke Larsen ran 25 yards on a fake punt to fuel the first touchdown drive. A 16-yard scoring run by true freshman Keaton Mitchell produced a 7-0 Pirates lead with 9:08 left in the first quarter.
“I’m on the punt team and it shocked me when I saw him doing that,” said sophomore outside linebacker Jireh Wilson. “That’s the first time we’ve run a fake all year. We came in with the mindset that we had nothing to lose.
“Coach started dialing things up that he normally doesn’t do and it worked out. It’s like a hit or miss play. It’s either going to hurt us or it’s a big momentum swing. It was a big momentum swing.”
The momentum gathered force as freshman safety Juan Powell made a stop on 4th-and-1 to halt an SMU drive at the Mustangs’ 34. Holton Ahlers passed to Mitchell for a 22-yard gain before he connected with Blake Proehl for an 11-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 7:07 to go in the first quarter.
On a well-executed gadget play, receiver Tyler Snead passed to a wide-open Proehl for a 35-yard touchdown and a 21-7 lead on the last play of the first quarter.
Wilson stripped the ball from an SMU receiver and returned it 39 yards to the SMU 32 before Ahlers completed a 14-yard TD pass to C.J. Johnson for a 28-7 lead with 11:01 remaining in the half.
Ahlers tossed to Snead for 14 yards and hit Cam Burnette for 19 yards on a 60-yard drive that was capped by a 2-yard scoring run by Darius Pinnix Jr.
Snead’s 36-yard punt return to the SMU 30 preceded a 16-yard Ahlers to Snead scoring pass with 4:00 left in the half. Jake Verity kicked a 29-yard field goal with one second on the clock for ECU’s 45-7 advantage at the break.
SMU quarterback Shane Buechele ran for one touchdown and passed for another in the second half. Tyler Lavine had a pair of rushing touchdowns for the Mustangs.
The visitors had trimmed the lead to 45-24 going into the fourth quarter.
The Pirates used completions of 22 yards to Snead and 37 yards to Proehl before a 2-yard scoring run by Pinnix pushed the lead to 52-24 with 13:15 to go.
Sophomore Ja’Quan McMillian had two interceptions in the last four minutes after SMU had pulled within 52-38.
Ahlers completed 20 of 29 for 298 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Proehl had six catches for 152 yards with two scores. Snead’s seven receptions totaled 92 yards with a TD. ECU had 43 rushes for 160 yards as Mitchell ran 20 times for 68 yards.
The Pirates led 493-384 in total yardage.
“All year, this is what we expect our offense to be,” Ahlers said. “Obviously, we had a couple of letdowns, but it was good to end it right.”
Powell was in on 10 tackles with six solos and a tackle for a loss. Wilson was involved in nine stops with five solos. Sophomore safety Shawn Dourseau made four solos and was in on eight tackles.
The Pirates made a statement and avoided going winless at home in 2020.
“I think that’s it,” Houston said of the quest for a signature win. “You beat a team that’s going to go play in a bowl game. It’s a 7-win football team that you knocked off at home. … I know nobody wants to play coulda, woulda, shoulda, but the Tulsa game’s a win. You got four conference wins. … You guys all know what I walked into here, what these kids walked into. This team is improving.”
ECU will have almost all its personnel back and the Pirates can use the win over a Mustangs team that was ranked as high as 16th nationally this season as a springboard into the offseason.
“Today you saw what we’ve been trying to bring to game day, that energy, that intensity, the way that defense was running and hitting,” Houston said. “The way our quarterbacks and receivers were playing, that’s big going into the offseason,”