GREENVILLE — On a landmark day for underdogs, East Carolina avoided the Sun Belt bite.
The Pirates declined the fate that befell No. 6 Texas A&M and No. 8 Notre Dame by revving up their running game to pull away to a 39-21 win over Old Dominion.
ODU was within striking distance, trailing 16-14 with three minutes left in the third quarter, but the Monarchs couldn’t replicate the glory generated by fellow league members Appalachian State (17-14 victory in College Station) or Marshall (26-21 triumph in South Bend) earlier Saturday.
ODU (1-1) had already put the Pirates on upset alert by knocking off Virginia Tech, 20-17, in Norfolk in week one.
The Sun Belt Conference’s bid for a week two trifecta began to unravel about the time it started raining sideways late in the third quarter at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
ECU (1-1) drove 76 yards to take a 22-14 lead on a 3-yard pass from Holton Ahlers to Rahjai Harris with 2:21 left in the third. Keaton Mitchell, who had two carries for 23 yards to start ECU’s third touchdown drive, got free and scored on an 81-yard run as the Pirates pushed the lead to 29-14 with 12:49 to go.
“We came out in the second half, and I thought we were doing a better job of moving them up front,” said ECU coach Mike Houston. “We talked to our offensive line at halftime. … When that popped (Mitchell’s 81-yard TD), you felt everything swing our way.”
The decisive sequence continued as Shaundre Mims forced a fumble that was recovered by J.D. Lampley at the ODU 15. Harris ran for a score and a 36-14 lead on the next snap. Owen Daffer’s 32-yard field goal boosted the advantage to 39-14 with 6:16 remaining.
Marlon Gunn gave Pirate Nation a glimpse of his potential with a 43-yard run to the ODU 3 on the last possession of the game.
ECU’s offensive numbers showed balance and productivity.
Ahlers completed 25 of 39 passes for 270 yards with two scores and no picks. The ground game accounted for 261 yards as Mitchell ran 18 times for 160 yards.
Georgia transfer Jaylen Johnson had nine catches for 93 yards and Toledo transfer Isaiah Winstead had five receptions for 89 yards.
The Pirates were turnover free on Saturday night.
“Total team effort,” said Ahlers, who had a 12-yard scoring pass to Ryan Jones in the first quarter for a 9-0 lead.
“The linemen just kept chopping,” said Mitchell.
The Pirate defense limited the visitors to one of eight on third down conversions and 289 yards total. Julius Wood had a third-quarter interception for ECU.
Daffer’s 22-yard field goal opened the scoring, but he had two conversions blocked. Houston said there were missed blocking assignments on the foiled PATs.
A blocked punt for a touchdown, a missed conversion and, ultimately, a 41-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide right with five seconds left were all huge in ECU’s 21-20 loss to N.C. State to start the season. ECU managed just 109 yards rushing against the Wolfpack.
Campbell comes to ECU for a 6 p.m. kickoff on Saturday (ESPN+). The Camels (1-1), who play in the Football Championship Subdivision, are coming off a 37-21 loss at William & Mary after defeating The Citadel, 29-10, to open the 2022 season.