HUNTINGTON, WV — East Carolina made play after play in the fourth quarter to overcome a 17-point deficit and stun Marshall, 42-38, on Saturday night.
“We got down 17, but the kids never flinched,” said Pirates coach Mike Houston. “They kept fighting.”
With ECU trailing, 38-21, the ECU defense got a stop on downs at its own 22. Holton Ahlers completed seven straight passes on the ensuing possession before scoring on a 5-yard keeper with 7:31 to go to get the Pirates within 38-28.
Andrew Sanders missed a 31-yard field goal for the Thundering Herd with 4:47 left.
Ahlers caught a pass from Tyler Snead and took it to the left pylon to cut the lead to 38-35 with 2:31 remaining.
Pirates kicker Owen Daffer recovered the ensuing onside kick at the ECU 47. Rahjai Harris completed the decisive touchdown drive with a 1-yard run with 55 seconds to go and Daffer made his sixth conversion kick for a 42-38 lead.
Marshall moved from its 25 to the ECU 15 before Ja’Quan McMillan intercepted for the Pirates at the ECU 1 with just six seconds left.
Marshall opened the season with a thorough 49-7 win at Navy before turning back North Carolina Central, 44-10, at home last week.
“I just felt like if we got them to the fourth quarter, they have not played a complete game all year,” Houston said. “We’ve been in two dogfights. They’ve been done by the end of the third. And that’s what happened. we got it to the fourth and our kids were in better shape, better conditioning. We got the momentum.
“We just had guy after guy just make really gutsy plays.”
Ahlers improved dramatically from his performance in a 20-17 loss at home to South Carolina last week when he was 11 for 24 for 77 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. He was 30-for-47 at Marshall for 368 yards with two TDs and no picks.
“We had so many guys make plays in the passing game,” Houston said. “We did a much better job of protecting Holton. He did a great job of taking care of the football and did a good job of putting the ball on the money.”
Keaton Mitchell had a season-high 135 yards rushing on 13 carries, the bulk of it coming on an 88-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter that gave the Pirates a 14-10 lead. Mitchell also caught four passes for 35 yards.
ECU tight end Shane Calhoun had eight catches for 114 yards, snaring a 5-yard scoring toss from Ahlers with 14 seconds left in the half to draw the Pirates within 24-21 at the break.
Tyler Snead had five receptions for 80 yards, including a 24-yarder from Ahlers for a 7-3 lead with 10:27 to go in the first quarter. Audie Omotosho had five catches for 70 yards.
Marshall led 647-571 in total yards. ECU converted 9-of-19 third downs after going 2-for-16 last week. The Pirates were 2-for-3 on fourth down at Marshall.
Defensive back Jireh Wilson was in on a team-high nine tackles for ECU. Linebacker Myles Berry, whose dad, Harold, passed away this week, was in on seven stops.
The Pirates extended their lead in the series to 11-5. The teams were supposed to play last year in Greenville in the 50th year since the plane crash that decimated the Herd program on the return trip from a 17-14 loss at ECU in 1970; The teams did not meet in 2020 due to COVID issues.
As opportunistic and productive as the Pirates were in rallying, the Herd has the biggest boomerang in the series. Marshall erased a 30-point deficit against the Pirates in the Mobile Bowl in 2001 for a 64-61 victory in double overtime.
The Pirates (1-2) look to get to .500 on Saturday at home against Charleston Southern at 6 p.m. before entering American Athletic Conference play.
Houston talked about the affirming aspects of the triumph at Marshall.
“It’s the tangible evidence that the process works,” said the third-year ECU coach. “Last week, we were so, so close. … Nobody can doubt the way these kids play. Nobody can doubt the heart that they have. Nobody can doubt the way they compete. Nobody can doubt the way that they believe in each other. I’m talking coaches, players, all of them. It’s really a fun deal.”