GREENVILLE — East Carolina made the first play Saturday, but South Carolina made the last one — a 36-yard field goal by Parker White as time expired to give the Gamecocks a 20-17 nonconference win.
“Hats off to their kicker,” said Pirates coach Mike Houston. “That was a big-time kick at the end. … I’ve seen a lot of those missed.”
Before some in the crowd of 40,816 had settled in at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, the Pirates took a 7-0 lead on a gadget play that looked like it was resurrected from Lincoln Riley’s days as offensive coordinator.
Tyler Snead lined up to the left on the first snap and got the ball from quarterback Holton Ahlers. What looked like a short run-pass option caught the Gamecocks by surprise as Snead threw deep to Jsi Hatfield, who was streaking down the right side.
Snead said he found out Thursday that the Pirates would open with that bit of deception. Houston credited Hatfield with selling a short screen route look before streaking toward the end zone.
The play covered 75 yards and the Pirates got the conversion kick from Owen Daffer for a 7-0 lead with 14:49 left in the first quarter.
Warren Saba intercepted for the Pirates on South Carolina’s first possession and ECU’s second series ended with a 55-yard punt by Jonn Young, who continuously enhanced field position with nine punts for an average of 46.9 yards..
ECU’s second TD came on a 3-yard keeper by Ahlers for a 14-0 lead with 11:53 left in the half. The score completed a 2-play possession that covered 13 yards. It was set up by a fumble return of 16 yards by graduate transfer safety D.J. Ford of UNC.
“Good things happen when you get to the ball,” Ford said.
Ford caught the ball after it came out of the clutches of Gamecocks receiver Dakereon Joyner. Outside linebacker Jeremy Lewis was credited with the strip, which held up after video review.
South Carolina’s comeback began with a 63-yard pick six by linebacker Damani Staley with one minute left in the first half.
“It was a screen,” Ahlers said. “They got through quick. … I’ve got to see it on film. I’ve either got to ground it or get a garage there.”
The Pirates didn’t score again until a 26-yard field goal by Daffer provided a 17-14 advantage with 8:46 left to play.
Joyner had a 13-yard TD catch from Zeb Nolan that allowed USC to tie the score at 14 with 46 seconds left in the third quarter.
After Daffer’s field goal, the Gamecocks got a 63-yard kickoff return from Juju McDowell that led to a tying 39-yard field goal by White with 6:46 remaining.
South Carolina (2-0) started its last drive at its own 28 with 4:54 to go. McDowell had six carries for 45 yards on the final series.
South Carolina had a 323-263 edge in total yardage.
Ahlers completed 11 of 24 for 77 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Rahjai Harris ran 14 times for ECU for 70 yards. Keaton Mitchell had 14 rushes for 45 yards. Ahlers ran for 44 yards, but was thrown for 45 yards in losses for a net of minus-1 yard.
Snead had five catches for 35 yards. Hatfield’s two receptions accounted for 90 yards.
Xavier Smith had six solo tackles and two assists to lead ECU (0-2) with eight stops.
The Pirates were 2-for-16 on third down conversions.
“We should have broken that one open, if we convert those third downs,” Ahlers said. “It starts with the offense. I told the defense if they play like that, we should win every single time.
“It’s not on the defense at all. Those guys stopped them. I told those guys it’s on the offense and it starts with me. I’m the quarterback.”
Houston said Ahlers would start working Sunday on correcting mistakes from the South Carolina game.
“He’s his own toughest critic,” said the third-year Pirates coach.
ECU visits Marshall on Saturday for a 6 p.m. kickoff.
“It’s like the 24-hour rule,” Snead said. “We’ll look at the film, give it 24 hours to kind of sulk in that, but after that it’s next week up. We’ve got another game. Going into week three and however many weeks we’ve got left, we’re just going to try and execute.”
The Pirates have not beaten the Gamecocks since a 21-3 victory in Columbia in 1999. South Carolina has won five straight and leads the series, 15-5.
“We’re going to show up next week and we’re going to play,” Houston said. “We’ve got pretty high expectations internally. The kids have worked their tails off. Certainly, they wanted this one badly today, for a lot of reasons. In particular, because it was at home. What a great crowd we had.
“I appreciate Pirate Nation being back. We wanted to give them a win.”
The Gamecocks were 2-8 in 2020 against an all-Southeastern Conference schedule. There appears to be the potential for improvement under first-year coach Shane Beamer, especially when starting quarterback Luke Doty gets healthy.
“We didn’t convert as many points as we wanted, but we’re playing a really good SEC defense,” Houston said. “That defensive line, you’ve got at least one first-round draft pick. You’ve got two five-star kids. One of them is the top defensive end in the country coming out of high school.
“We weren’t playing against mediocre players. There’s a lot to be said about them having something to do with that.”