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Game No. 12: ECU 53, UTEP 21


Inside Game Day
Saturday, November 29, 2008

By Al Myatt

Pirates hit stride for C-USA final

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

GREENVILLE — East Carolina was a beat-up football team going into its final regular season game but the guys who were healthy enough to put on the purple stepped up big time on a postcard afternoon in Greenville on Friday.

The offense that had been struggling for a month finally put it together for ECU's highest point total of the season. The outcome gave some realistic hope for the Pirates to compete against the high-powered offenses which characterize the Western Division of Conference USA in next week's league championship game at either Houston, Tulsa or Rice.

The Cougars handed ECU one of the Pirates' more one-sided losses this season, 41-24, on Sept. 27. The Pirates moved to 8-4 on the season and 6-2 in C-USA, matching their overall win total of 2007.

About the only thing that went wrong for ECU was a fake field goal that was thrown for a loss with just over seven minutes left in the game, but by that time the Pirates were ahead 43-14.

The best-laid plans of the Texas-El Paso Miners went awry in a hurry at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium as East Carolina put a roadblock on UTEP's bowl hopes by sprinting ahead 24-0 and gaining momentum for next Saturday's Conference USA title game with a well-executed 53-21 victory.

ECU ran 81 plays for 475 total yards.

Senior Brandon Simmons scored four touchdowns and had 111 yards on 27 carries.

"It was just a great feeling," Simmons said in the aftermath. "Speaking for all the seniors, we were glad the underclassmen stepped up. The whole university stepped up and sent us out with a bang."

"Brandon Simmons did a great job of being that bruiser for us today," said Pirates coach Skip Holtz."

Senior Patrick Pinkney completed 17 of 23 passes for 228 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

The Pirates netted 231 yards on the ground and 244 through the air. ECU will get a much-needed extra day of rest before meeting Sunday night to begin preparing for the league championship.

A Houston win over Rice today would give the Cougars the West Division crown. If Houston loses and Tulsa wins at Marshall, the Golden Hurricane would host the league final. Rice needs to beat Houston and for Marshall to top Tulsa in order for the Owls to emerge with the West championship.

Regardless of how those scenarios play out, Simmons said the Pirates helped their self perception with the performance against UTEP.

"You always want to approach a championship game with confidence," Simmons said. "This game gave us a confidence boost."

As refreshing as it was to see ECU regain offensive productivity, Holtz pointed out that the defense did its job in slowing down a UTEP team that was averaging 34 points per game.

"I'm proud of our defense," said Holtz, whose name surfaced this week amid speculation that Notre Dame may be on the brink of a coaching change. "We got a couple of turnovers early against a football team that had been averaging a lot of yards and a lot of points."

UTEP had been averaging 435.7 yards of offense but managed just 370 against ECU. The Miners were a plus-1.27 on turnovers per game but the Pirates had three takeaways on Friday to just one for the visitors.

The Miners made the 1,900-mile trip East on Wednesday and lodged for two nights in New Bern to get acclimated to the region, but their hopes for a sixth win and bowl eligibility were quickly derailed by the Bucs before 38,098 fans on ECU's Senior Day.

On fourth-and-two at the UTEP 32 with 49 seconds left in the half, Pinkney hit a leaping Alex Taylor on the north sideline for 22 yards and a first down at the Miner 10-yard line. Simmons gathered in a 7-yard scoring toss from Pinkney to give the Pirates a 30-7 lead. Ben Hartman missed the extra point leaving ECU tied for its season-high point total achieved against Memphis in a 30-10 Pirates win on Oct. 18.

ECU defensive lineman Jay Ross blocked a 57-yard field goal attempt by UTEP's Jose Martinez to close the first half.

ECU set a season high for first quarter points as Pinkney directed the offense with aplomb in his final game on the turf of Bagwell Field. Pinkney completed eight of nine passes in the first 15 minutes for 81 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown to Darryl Freeney for a 14-0 lead.

The defense did its part as an interception by Travis Simmons set up the second ECU touchdown. A sack by Ross helped stall the Miners' first possession. With UTEP driving in the second quarter, an interception by Nick Johnson gave Pinkney and the Pirates the ball again.

ECU was able to establish the run with Simmons showing power with six carries for 36 yards in the opening quarter. A 37-yard pass play to Freeney followed an 11-yard run by Norman Whitley and put ECU at the UTEP 30-yard line.

Pinkney found Davon Drew for 13 yards to the UTEP 13 on third down. Simmons ran six yards for his second score of the day as ECU went up 24-0 on Hartman's conversion kick.

The Miners got on the board with a 28-yard scoring run by Terrell Jackson with just over two minutes left in the first half but a 61-yard kickoff return by Michael Bowman to the UTEP 39 put the Pirates in position for a quick answer.

ECU took the second-half kickoff and Simmons finished the drive by scoring his fourth touchdown of the day for a 37-7 command.

A 48-yard field goal by Hartman pushed the lead to 40-7 with 2:59 left in the third quarter. The Pirates initially were going to go for it on fourth down but the punting unit came in after a delay of game penalty. For some reason, punter Matt Dodge was late getting on the field and ECU spent a timeout. With a favorable wind, Holtz opted for the field goal try rather than a pooch punt by Dodge.

The Miners tried an onside kick after pulling within 46-21 with just over a minute left but ECU's Alex Taylor picked up the short boot and returned it 43 yards for the Pirates' final score.

Regulation play in last year's game at the Sun Bowl ended with Juwon Crowell's grab of a Rob Kass pass for a tying touchdown, and ECU went on to win 45-42 in overtime. A Pirate made a catch as time expired in the end zone this year as well as Spencer Hampton snagged a UTEP pass for a game-ending interception.

"We are the champions," by Queen played on the public address system as fans filed out of the stadium, an appropriate selection as ECU has its first league title in football of any kind since winning the Southern Conference back in 1976.

The Pirates won C-USA's East Division last week. They played like champions on Friday.

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11/28/2008 11:35:10 PM


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