GREENVILLE — East Carolina was back in black uniforms and helmets on Saturday night, a fashion statement originating in the Ruffin McNeill coaching era.
The Pirates beat Central Florida decisively, 34-13, for their first win over the Knights since 2015, McNeill’s final season at his alma mater.
Unlike ECU’s 44-7 road triumph in 2015 when UCF went winless, this year’s Knights came in with a 5-1 record and were 5-point favorites. UCF was 2-0 in the American Athletic Conference.
“What a performance,” said Pirates coach Mike Houston. “I could not be more proud of the players and the coaches, the way they prepared this week.”
ECU (5-3, 3-2 AAC) won the turnover battle, 4-0, getting a pick by Jireh Wilson after Andrew Conrad missed a 25-yard field goal on the Pirates’ first possession.
Conrad hit a 28-yarder for a 3-0 advantage to cap ECU’s second series with two minutes left in the first quarter and the Pirates led the rest of the way.
Holton Ahlers completed 30 of 36 passes for 311 yards but pushed the lead to 10-0 with his feet on a 3-yard keeper with 7:46 left in the first half. Ahlers found former D.H. Conley teammate C.J. Johnson on a touchdown pass play covering 39 yards with 49 seconds left in the half to extend the lead to 17-0. That score gave Ahlers 87 career touchdown passes and made him first in the ECU record book, ahead of Shane Carden.
UCF (5-2, 2-1) had its best segment of the contest with a 27-yard field goal by Colton Boomer to close the first half and a 3-yard scoring run by Isaiah Bowser with 10:28 left in the third quarter to pull within 17-10.
ECU answered with a 75-yard drive that was completed by Keaton Mitchell’s 6-yard scoring run with 6:23 to go in the third quarter. The 8-play series that put the Pirates up, 24-10, included a 25-yard gain on a toss from Ahlers to C.J. Johnson.
Conrad and Boomer each hit field goals to make the score 27-13. Mitchell scored from 37 yards out with 3:21 to go and Gerard Stringer intercepted in the final minute after the Knights had moved to the ECU 17.
“All three phases, our coaches had tremendous game plans,” Houston said. “They all worked together. … We wanted to control the ball on offense. We wanted to be aggressive and drive and score. If they played man coverage, we wanted to take shots.
“We knew we had to limit the explosive plays defensively. We wanted to force the game into a drop back game for (John Rhys) Plumlee.
“Special teams, we were facing one of the top-ranked kickoff return teams in the country. I just thought all three phases — everybody on that field, everybody on the headsets — everybody did a phenomenal job. It doesn’t just happen tonight. It happens all week.”
The Pirates led 458-426 in total yardage. Mitchell had 16 carries for 105 yards with two TDs. Marlon Gunn Jr. ran 11 times for 36 yards.
C.J. Johnson’s 11 catches accounted for 140 yards with a score. Isaiah Winstead hauled in seven passes for 89 yards.
ECU had more than a 10-minute advantage in possession time.
The Pirates punted just once, a 41-yarder inside the 20 by Luke Larsen.
Julius Wood had four solo stops and six assists to lead ECU in tackles with 10.
The Pirates, back in black, are back in the form that mostly had been missing since they first broke out the all-black unis when Ruff was around.
ECU can assure bowl eligibility on Friday night at Brigham Young (ESPN2, 8 p.m.). The Cougars are 4-4 after a 41-14 loss at Liberty on Saturday.
“Winning that game last week (vs. Memphis, 47-45, 4 OTs), the way we did, the momentum and confidence that you had from that is why you had the preparation the way you did this week,” Houston said.
The Pirates have given themselves another significant triumph to build on this week.