GREENVILLE — Houston used East Carolina as a springboard to the Big 12 Conference with a 42-3 triumph over the Pirates on Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in the final American Athletic Conference contest in football between the two.
Who saw this coming? The oddsmakers missed badly, making ECU a 6-point favorite. The Pirate seniors certainly were geared up to go out in better fashion in their last home game. The ECU coaches had reason to be encouraged after outgaining Cincinnati in total yards, 454-310, in a 27-25 road loss last week.
There was a healthy crowd of 42,475 on hand, most expecting the purple and gold to shine in the first home game in the afternoon since the season opener against N.C. State. Houston’s 31-24 overtime win at home over ECU last season indicated competitive balance between the combatants.
So, what happened?
Senior linebacker Myles Berry of the Pirates may have had the best explanation.
“I’m not going to say it was surprising,” Berry said. “I’m just going to say that Clayton Tune (Cougar senior quarterback) did a really good job and Houston did a really good job executing their offense. They found a lot of gaps in our defense, especially passing the ball.
“Hats off to them. We just have to come back better. Fix mistakes. Come back (Sunday), watch the film, fix our mistakes and get ready for Temple.”
Houston (7-4, 5-2 AAC) led the rest of the way after Tune found Nathaniel Dell on the Cougars’ first series for a 12-yard score with 10:23 left in the first quarter.
Tune orchestrated masterfully, completing 32 of 44 for 435 yards and four touchdowns. Juan Powell nicked him with a first-quarter pick at the ECU 17 and Holton Ahlers hit Jsi Hatfield for 55 yards on the next snap, but the opportunity fizzled with a fourth down incompletion at the Houston 26.
Possession downs were a problem for the Pirates, who were 3 of 14 on third down conversions and 0 for 4 on fourth downs.
Keaton Mitchell managed 128 yards on 14 carries to provide a bright spot for the Pirates, who remarkably did not have a turnover or a penalty.
“I hate that we didn’t win for our seniors,” summarized ECU coach Mike Houston, who took responsibility for the Pirates’ mystifying mediocrity. “Very disappointed in our performance. Just out of sync, especially on the offensive side of the ball there early. … Houston is a very talented ball club. Tune and Dell and company played very well.”
Dell had nine catches for 176 yards and teammate Matthew Golden had eight receptions for 127 yards.
Down 21-0 at the half, ECU sought to regroup.
“We just talked about being us,” said safety Gerard Stringer. “We weren’t doing that the first half, the whole game.”
Andrew Conrad prevented a shutout with a 21-yard field goal with 7:38 left in the third quarter, trimming the lead to 28-3.
The Pirates (6-5, 3-4 AAC) visit Temple (3-7, 1-5) on Saturday for a 1 p.m. kickoff to conclude the regular season. The game is scheduled to be shown on ESPN+.