ANNAPOLIS, MD — East Carolina kicker Owen Daffer was a walk-on as he went for the win at Navy on Saturday. He was on scholarship soon afterward.
Daffer completed a comeback with a game-ending 54-yard field goal for a 38-35 American Athletic Conference triumph over the Midshipmen.
“Great snap, great hold (Jonn Young), good protection and he nailed it,” said Pirates coach Mike Houston. ” … Proud of the kids. They believe in our core values and the process and it’s paying dividends.”
Daffer, a redshirt freshman from New Hanover, was given a grant in an ecstatic locker room following ECU’s second win in the series.
It was the second straight road victory on the last play of the game for the Pirates, who improved to 7-4 overall and 5-2 in the AAC going into a home game Friday at 3:30 p.m. against No. 5 Cincinnati (11-0, 7-0).
Five wins in the American is tied with the 2014 ECU team which went 5-3 in the league.
Navy (2-8, 2-5) used two huge plays in the fourth quarter to lead 35-27 on their Senior Day. Carlinos Acie had a 90-yard scoring run with 14:03 to go and Maquel Haywood had a 98-yard kickoff return after a 25-yard field goal by Daffer. The officials picked up a flag thrown for an illegal block on the score by Haywood with 8:33 left and that left Houston livid.
The Pirates responded with a 28-yard scoring pass from Holton Ahlers to Tyler Snead with 5:01 remaining and Ahlers found C.J. Johnson for the tying 2-point conversion.
ECU’s defense forced a punt from the Pirates’ 47 and Ahlers connected on a 46-yard pass to Snead to the Navy 32 to set up Daffer. The kicker was unfazed by a 5-yard procedure penalty that increased his degree of difficulty. Two Navy timeouts designed to ice him only delayed the winning swing of his right foot.
“That’s something that I rely on is that I can come through in big-time situations,” Daffer said. “I keep getting chances to prove it and thank God I’m able to come through. I was thinking walk-off home run and why not?”
Daffer’s conversion kick in overtime at Memphis provided the deciding point in a 30-29 win last week as the Tigers subsequently went for a 2-point conversion and were denied on a pass break-up by Myles Berry.
Jake Verity’s successor as Pirate kicker had a 50-yarder in high school and said he has hit from 65 yards in practice. His longest in a game this season was 39 yards.
“I just knew he was prepared for the moment,” Ahlers said. “I’m super proud of him. … In the pressure of the moment, he could have done a lot of different things.”
Ahlers said the Pirates had a Hail Mary called before opting for Daffer.
“I begged Coach to kick it,” Ahlers said. “I was like, ‘He can make it, he can make it,’ and he went out and drilled it.”
Ahlers completed 27 of 32 for 405 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. ECU led 563-387 in total yards.
“Shout out to the O-line,” Ahlers said. “Without them, I can’t do anything. Our receivers made a lot of good plays. Coach K (offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick) called a great game.”
Snead had five catches for 137 yards and two TDs. Audie Omotosho had seven receptions for 90 yards. Ryan Jones had five catches for 42 yards and a score. Keaton Mitchell had four catches for 42 yards. Johnson’s three grabs accounted for 89 yards.
Mitchell led the ground game with 18 rushes for 92 yards and a TD. Ahlers had seven keepers for 48 yards.
Linebacker Bruce Bivens was in on nine tackles, including six solo stops.
ECU led 24-21 at the half as Ahlers hit Jones for a 5-yard score just 18 seconds before intermission.
The only other ECU win in the series, which Navy leads by a 7-2 margin, was in 2011 when the Pirates prevailed by the same 38-35 score.
ECU leads the series with Cincinnati, 13-11, but the Bearcats have won three straight and nine of the last 10.
“The kids have set us up for one heck of a matchup next Friday,” Houston said. “We need Pirate Nation to show up. We need Dowdy-Ficklen packed. … We’ve got our hands full, but I tell you we’ve got a dang good football team in that locker room.”