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.”