GREENVILLE — Mistakes and missed opportunities disrupted East Carolina’s designs on beating No. 4 Cincinnati on Friday.
The Bearcats improved to 12-0 with a 35-13 win at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and kept their national championship aspirations alive going into the American Athletic Conference championship game at home against Houston on Saturday.
The Pirates slipped to 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the AAC, but are looking forward to regrouping for their first bowl trip since the 2014 season.
“Obviously, we’re very disappointed in the outcome,” said ECU coach Mike Houston. “Cincinnati is a good football team. You see why they’re undefeated.”
The Pirates were within striking distance when a mammoth special teams play gave the visitors some fourth-quarter breathing room.
ECU was going for Owen Daffer’s third field goal of the game on a 4th-and-goal at the Cincinnati 17 when Arquon Bush blocked it and Ahmad Gardner returned the loose ball 60 yards for a touchdown, allowing the Bearcats to extend their lead to 28-6 with 11:17 left.
Had Daffer connected, the Pirates would have closed within 21-9. Houston said he was good with being within two scores considering the down and distance, but he said the snap was premature and that impacted the attempt .
After the 10-point swing, ECU moved to the Cincinnati 12 on a 38-yard pass to Tyler Snead from Holton Ahlers and scored when Ahlers found Jsi Hatfield on a slant covering the last 12 yards with 9:38 to go.
ECU turned the ball over on its next two possessions on an interception and a fumble on fourth down.
“Our kids played really, really hard,” Houston said. “We just made some critical mistakes that you can’t make if you’re going to win that ball game.”
The day started well for the Pirates as Bearcats kicker Alex Bales missed a 45-yarder on Cincinnati’s first possession and Daffer hit from 35 yards on the subsequent series.
Snead felt the significant breeze had more of an effect on the kickers than the passing game.
ECU held the advantage until Desmond Ridder found Leonard Taylor on a 44-yard scoring pass with 13:48 left in the half. A 53-yard pass from Ridder to Alec Pierce set up a 2-yard scoring run by Jerome Ford for Cincinnati’s second touchdown and a 14-3 lead with 10:32 to go in the half.
Pierce wrestled possession in the end zone for a score spanning 28 yards with 4:40 before the break as Cincinnati went up 21-3.
Daffer kicked a 44-yard field goal on a second chance following a penalty on the Bearcats with 2:18 left in the third quarter.
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell drew some ire last year as the Bearcats executed a fake punt with a big lead in the fourth quarter of a 55-17 win over ECU at Nippert Stadium.
The visitors kept the ball on the ground for their final score Saturday on a 2-yard run by Ryan Montgomery with 1:44 left.
“This is a good football team,” Fickell said of the Pirates. “Give Coach Houston credit. … I knew they’d be fired up on their Senior Night. We put it to them a little bit last year, so we were going to get their best shot.”
ECU may have given its best shot in terms of effort, but the performance came up short on execution.
“It’s been a great experience, just seeing the growth,” said senior linebacker Aaron Ramseur, who led the Pirates with eight tackles, including four solo stops. “The guys in the locker room made the process of winning a priority.”
ECU invested 38 rushes in its attack but managed a net of just 54 yards. Fickell credited nose guards Curtis Brooks and Marcus Brown with controlling the Pirates’ ground game.
Ridder completed 17 of 28 for 301 yards with two TDs and two interceptions. Senior Warren Saba had both picks. With Cincinnati threatening to expand its first half lead, Juan Powell forced a fumble at the ECU 3 and Ja’Quan McMillan recovered for ECU with 1:15 left in the half.
The Bearcats had a 444-282 lead in total yards. Ahlers finished 19 for 38 for 228 yards with one TD and one interception. Snead had six catches for 91 yards. Ryan Jones had six receptions for 74 yards. Hatfield returned from an ailment with four catches for 48 yards. Keaton Mitchell was the leading rusher for the Pirates with 17 carries for 55 yards.
ECU utilized Luke Larsen as punter for most of the game because of his versatility between rugby and traditional style. He responded with an average of 41.6 yards on six boots with the wind in the 20 mile-per-hour range.
The Pirates are looking like a possibility for the Military Bowl against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent on Dec. 27. It would be ECU’s second trip to Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis, MD, this season. The first venture produced a 38-35 win over the Midshipmen on Daffer’s 54-yard field goal as time expired on Nov. 20.
“Our goal has not been to go to a bowl game,” Houston said. “Our goal is to win a bowl game.”
Congrats to the Pirates for a very solid season, advancing both the overall quality of play, and more than doubling the Wins. Most important, the Pirates play hard every play, every game – no quitting.
Unfortunately, against Cincy, the Pirates looked more like the team who played App State back in August, not the team who fought back through adversity against Navy. As much fun as it has been watching the advancement of the Program, the Cincy game is a reminder the Pirates are still a work in progress.
Cincy may yet prove unworthy of a playoff spot, but you have to envy the workmanlike manner in which they take care of business. I think Coach Houston is trying to build that type of team.
All three phases of the game faltered, showing how much our team needs to improve going forward – if the Pirates ever want to be in Cincy’s position. Some of the mistakes/breakdowns were certainly due to the level of competition, while others were the Pirates’ own doing.
Much has been accomplished, yet, much is left to do. To realize how hard it is to achieve the results desired by Pirate Nation, look only to Cincy. Two full years at a high level of performance, yet still on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
Again, congratulations Pirate football, and go win a bowl game!!
Irish Spectre says
“ECU may have given its best shot in terms of effort, but the performance came up short on execution.”
That says it all, and I know that those long passes given up by the defense were hard to watch, but generally I thought the d was exceptional; the offense, not so much, but the Cinnci d had a lot to do w/ that; they appeared to be considerably quicker and faster. That late field goal SNAFU and interception were daggers.
Cinnci proved that they’re considerably superior, but I’ve got a nagging question as to what Houston was thinking about when ECU got a huge takeaway at the end of the first half, had the ball at their own 25 or so w/ well over a minute remaining, plus a timeout or two, a classic two minute drill situation, and yet they more or less sat on it!! What the hell was that about?? Was it confusion on the sideline, or just a “limit the damage” mentality?? Neither answer is satisfactory, and both reminded me of the Navy game, when they didn’t go for it late in the 4th on a 4th and 1, and then basically mismanaged the clock at the very end, unnecessarily forcing a 54 yard fg.
You cannot take away from the Pirates improvement, but I think there’s more room for that on the sidelines, too.
Valid questions. The clock management at various ‘crunch’ times through the season has been an issue. Before the half, I think Coach was afraid the offense would pull a quick three-and-out, leaving Cincy time to do more damage. Still, knowing Cincy was getting the ball first after the half, you would think the Pirates would at least TRY to score at least a field goal.
To me, it seemed as if Cincy had memorized most of the Pirate playbook. Couple that with an unwillingness to move Ahlers out of the pocket and force Cincy to adjust, made for a long day. I don’t think the OC/Coach are willing to accept that the o-line can’t execute either a solid run game or pocket passing, against stout competition. Also, Ahlers overall accuracy wasn’t very high.
Agreed, the defense played a decent game. Too much peeking into the backfield by the secondary, though.
Hopefully, corrections can be made in time for the bowl game.
Pirates are on the way back!!! says
Never a shortage of football experts and critics! We forget so quickly it seems…. Just a couple short years ago, we couldn’t tackle, couldn’t block, and this team would have blown us completely out right away. The way we play, compete, the attitude, the effort, all reflections of Houston. Wake up and recognize. Blessed to have him and very proud of what we have accomplished. The future is bright!! Buy tickets and let’s get behind this team.
Any negatives IMO, AD lets get some folks in the concession areas. Lines are way out of hand at home games. I know it’s been a tuff season to get folks to work, but this has to improve. Also would be nice to see Greenville police out or Hwy Patrol helping with traffic after games more.
It’s been a much more enjoyable season this year than the last several. Nice to actually look forward to Saturdays again in the fall!!!