GREENVILLE — Good fortune has kept its distance from the East Carolina football team in 2023. A 29-27 American Athletic Conference loss to visiting Tulsa on Saturday was no exception.
The Pirates appeared to be in control after stopping the Golden Hurricane on fourth down and taking possession at the Tulsa 24 with 2:31 to go.
A direct snap to running back Rahjai Harris on first down wound up on the ground and was recovered by Tulsa’s Ben Kopenski. It was the last of five turnovers for ECU.
True freshman quarterback Kirk Francis directed the Golden Hurricane on a quick drive to the ECU 19 and Chase Meyer kicked a decisive 37-yard field goal with one second remaining.
“The night should not have ended the way it did,” said Pirates coach Mike Houston. “We should be celebrating and singing a fight song right now. I hate it for all of our players. It’s just not the way it should have happened.”
The outcome put ECU at 2-10 for the season, the worst record since a 1-11 mark in 2003. The Pirates went 1-7 in the AAC to finish tied with Temple for last in the league among 14 teams.
“I’m proud of the way the kids competed,” Houston said. “Obviously, it wasn’t perfect, but they gave us the opportunity to win. I really appreciate the fans that were here. The stadium was awesome. I really appreciate the way Pirate Nation supports our program. I can promise you I’m not going through this again.”
Tulsa (4-8, 2-6 AAC) took a 6-0 lead on a 31-yard pass from Francis to Kamdyn Benjamin. Meyer missed the extra point.
Jaylen Johnson caught a 4-yard scoring pass from Alex Flinn with 10:20 to go in the first quarter and Andrew Conrad added the extra point for a 7-6 ECU lead. Harris skirted the left side and went 50 yards for a score to give the Pirates a 14-6 ECU advantage with 4:48 to go in the first quarter.
A Francis TD pass to Luke McGary at the 1:54 mark and a subsequent 45-yard drive capped off by a 1-yard scoring plunge by Bill Jackson gave Tulsa a 20-14 lead barely two minutes into the second quarter. The drive followed a 21-yard punt by Luke Larsen.
The Pirates led 24-20 at the half as Flinn hit Jsi Hatfield in stride for a 32-yard score and Conrad kicked a 29-yard field goal.
Meyer had scoring kicks of 28 and 26 yards in the second half in addition to the game winner.
Conrad connected from 26 yards for a 27-26 lead with 12:12 to play.
Tulsa led 446-409 in total yards.
Harris ran 21 times for 145 yards as the Pirates netted 225 yards rushing.
Flinn completed 12 of 18 for 184 yards with two TDs and two picks. Chase Sowell had five catches for 108 yards.
B.J. Davis had one solo stop and seven assists to pace the Pirates with eight tackles.
Francis completed 23 of 37 for 297 yards with two scores and a pick (by Shavon Revel).
Anthony Watkins had 18 carries for 106 yards for Tulsa. Benjamin finished with six catches for 143 yards.
Houston wasn’t sure why the Pirates were in a wildcat formation before the crucial final lost fumble.
“I was looking at the kill the clock sheet and turned around,” he said. “It looked like we just dropped the snap. … Not ideally what you want right there in that situation. I’d like to see us put the game away. That’s why I said, we shouldn’t be in the situation right here. So, it’s on me. I’m the head football coach here. I’m responsible for everything that goes on, on the field.”
The Pirates were 8-5 with a bowl win in 2022. The struggles this season were not expected although significant personnel left the program.
A group of 14 players were recognized on Senior Day.
“I’m excited about a lot of the young players we have in the program.” Houston said. “We played a lot of young guys, particularly on offense this year. But obviously, I, our fan base, our administration, all of us, the players, all of us have much higher expectations. I understand exactly what East Carolina football should be. It’s the picture I painted since I got here, and this year is not it and it’s not acceptable.”