CINCINNATI — East Carolina likely won’t miss traveling to Cincinnati after the Bearcats move to the Big 12 Conference next year.
The hosts won, 27-25, on Friday night for their fifth straight victory in the series, which is tied at 13, and, once again, Cincinnati generated ill will at Nippert Stadium.
The Bearcats ran a fake punt in the fourth quarter of a 55-17 win over visiting ECU in 2020, sparking outrage from Pirate Nation in what was perceived to be an attempt to run up the score.
In the third quarter Friday night, Cincinnati defensive back Bryon Threats was called for targeting on a hit that knocked ECU running back Keaton Mitchell out of the game as he attempted to make a catch near the goal line.
“That’s one of the dirtiest plays I’ve seen in years,” said Pirates coach Mike Houston in his postgame remarks on the East Carolina Radio Network. “I hope the conference (American Athletic) will do something about it. There’s no call for that.”
Mitchell had 16 carries for 112 yards with one touchdown when he exited. Marlon Gunn Jr. came in and finished with 48 yards on 11 rushes.
“He’s probably the best player in our conference,” said ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers of Mitchell. “I 100 percent think they were trying to take him out there. It was an extremely dirty play and they’re known for that. They’re known for doing some dirty stuff.”
ECU receiver C.J. Johnson was left prone on the turf around the Pirates’ 20-yard line after getting the ball on a hook and lateral on the game’s final play. Johnson was taken to a hospital for evaluation.
The Pirates (6-4, 3-3 AAC) took the lead at 25-24 on a 15-yard pass from Ahlers to Jalen Johnson with 2:02 left in the third quarter on the play after Mitchell was sidelined.
Cincinnati (8-2, 5-1) regained the advantage on a 21-yard field goal by Ryan Coe with 9:42 left to play.
ECU drove to the Cincinnati 41 before losing possession on downs on an incompletion that left Johnson pleading for pass interference with 1:44 to play.
“We let one get away,” Houston said. “Disappointed that we didn’t score there at the end.”
ECU took a 5-0 lead on a safety and a 47-yard field goal by Andrew Conrad in the first quarter. Jeremy Lewis and Elijah Morris sacked Cincinnati quarterback Ben Bryant in the end zone to open the scoring.
The Bearcats got a 100-yard kick return by Jadon Thompson to take a 7-5 lead after the scoring kick by Conrad.
A short toss from Bryant to Tre Tucker went for a 55-yard score and Cincinnati pushed its lead to 21-5 on a scoring pass play to Tyler Scott covering 76 yards.
Johnson stiff armed three defenders on a 72-yard TD pass that cut the lead to 21-12 with 6:03 left in the first half. ECU trailed 24-12 at the half as Coe connected from 37 yards 1;48 prior to the break.
Mitchell’s 4-yard run finished a 79-yard drive on ECU’s first possession of the third quarter to cut the lead to 24-19.
The Pirates kept the Bearcats out of the end zone in the second half.
“You just can’t give up the explosive plays,” Houston said. “That’s the ballgame right there.”
The Pirates finished with a 454-310 lead in total yards.
Ahlers completed 26 of 46 for 280 yards with two TDs and no interceptions. Johnson finished with seven catches for 123 yards and Isaiah Winstead had eight catches for 58 yards.
ECU hosts Houston on Sat., Nov. 19, in its last game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium this season.