MEMPHIS — East Carolina withstood an overtime gamble to top Memphis, 30-29, and become bowl eligible at the Liberty Bowl on Saturday.
The Tigers were unsuccessful on a 2-point conversion pass attempt to end the game in the first extra segment.
The Pirates, who improved to 6-4 overall and 4-2 in the American Athletic Conference, took a 30-23 lead on the first possession of overtime on a 24-yard run by Keaton Mitchell with a point-after kick by Owen Daffer.
Memphis (5-5, 2-4) answered as Rodrigues Clark scored on a 20-yard run to get the Tigers within a point.
ECU third-year coach Mike Houston said he wasn’t surprised that Memphis went for the win.
“Their kicker has been erratic,” Houston said. “That’s the reason I called timeout, just to make him sit on it and think a little bit. I was talking to the kids about making one play when we saw them switch up and bring their offense out.”
On the game’s final play, Tigers quarterback Seth Henigan rolled left under pressure and his pass intended for Clark was batted down in traffic.
Memphis coach Ryan Silverfield said a missed extra point by kicker David Kemp after the Tigers’ second touchdown was influential in his decision to go for two.
“I told my guys all along that we were going to be aggressive,” Silverfield said. ” … With a lack of a run game, you put yourself in inopportune situations in overtime when you’ve got the 25-yard line and in. It condenses the passing game. All of that went through my thoughts.”
The Pirates took a 23-20 lead on a 1-yard run by Rahjai Harris with 1:29 to go. The go-ahead drive covered 75 yards and included a 4th-and-1 conversion from the ECU 34 on a 6-yard pass from Holton Ahlers to Tyler Snead. The Pirates converted three subsequent third downs in the series.
Memphis sent the game to overtime on a 24-yard field goal by Kemp as regulation time expired.
The one-point final margin belied some statistical elements as ECU had a 32-16 lead in first downs and more than 25 minutes in possession time than the hosts.
Ahlers completed 29 of 46 passes for 313 yards with no touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. Ahlers had 18 rushes for 46 yards and scored on a 2-yard keeper as the Pirates tied the score at 7 with 3:50 left in the first quarter.
Ahlers said ECU had figured there would be run lanes open for him with the number of players the Tigers drop into coverage in some of their alignments.
Mitchell ran 17 times for 81 yards. Harris gained 69 yards on 20 carries.
Snead had 13 catches for 113 yards. C.J. Johnson made five catches for 44 yards. Four receptions by tight end Ryan Jones accounted for 70 yards. Mitchell and Audie Omotosho had two grabs apiece for 40 and 35 yards, respectively.
The Pirates had to settle for field goals of 24, 29 and 21 yards by Daffer.
ECU lost its previous overtime contest this season, 31-24, at Houston on Oct. 23. Coach Houston talked about the effects of close setbacks, including South Carolina (20-17, Sept. 11) and Central Florida (20-16, Oct. 9).
“All those losses, as painful as they were, I do think they galvanize you,” Houston said. “I do think they allow you to just focus in and play that one play, that one snap right in front of you.”
The Pirates disrupted the final play with the outcome hanging in the balance.
Memphis had won 17 straight games in November, including a 70-13 win over ECU in the Pirates’ last trip to the Liberty Bowl on Nov. 25, 2017.
ECU became bowl eligible for the first time since the 2014 season. A victory at Navy on Saturday (CBS Sports Network, 3:30 p.m.) would assure a winning season.
“It’s just a blessing to be part of this team,” Ahlers said. ” … It’s been too long, but we’re back.”