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Phew! Pirates Hang on by a Nail
to Stay Perfect In Conference USA

By Denny O'Brien

CINCINNATI -- Just 11days removed from its gut-wrenching 37-30 victory over Texas Christian in Fort Worth, East Carolina found itself in an all-too familiar situation on Saturday.

Crucial league showdown... on the road... national television... big halftime lead... and facing a backup quarterback to start the second half. And then, just as in the TCU game, the plot thickened.

It was eerily akin to watching a rerun as ECU (6-3, 5-0 C-USA) dashed out to a 28-3 first-half lead that proved to be just enough — holding on until its last breath to beat Cincinnati (5-4, 4-2) by a hair, 28-26.

It wasn't until Jonathan Ruffin's 52-yard field goal attempt fell just short in the waning seconds that the Pirates could finally rest easy. For a second, however, Ruffin's kick appeared to be well on its way through the uprights.

"I saw the ball get kicked," senior linebacker Pernell Griffin said. "It looked good to me. It went straight to the middle of the field goal posts, but it dropped just short."

For the second week in a row, head coach Steve Logan embraced the Pirates' nail-biter of a victory, as the Pirates remained perfect on the road in conference play.

"Going on the road and winning is a hard thing," Logan said. "You appreciate any way, any shape, any form that you can get a win.

"That was a mirror of what happened the other night against Texas Christian, but we hung on just enough to win. I want to give our kids credit — they did find a way to win it. It's hard to win on the road, and we got it done."

The Pirates could do little wrong in the first half, save for a fumble by Torey Morris on a lateral that set up the Bearcats' first score. The Pirates came out sizzling, fueled by another magnificent performance by senior workhorse Leonard Henry, whose 18-carry, 234-yard, performance moved him into second place on the ECU all-time career rushing list.

"Leonard's having a good year," Logan said. "David's (Garrard) doing a good job of checking us into the right play, and we got off again to a great start.

"They slowed him (Henry) down late, but Leonard's having a fine year, and it looks like he's going to finish the year out in good style."

The Pirates piled up 464 yards of total offense, 305 of which came on the ground, with most of that coming in a first-half onslaught that led to a seemingly secure lead.

Henry, who finished the day with three touchdowns, two of which came on the ground, was also the Pirates' leading receiver, hauling in four catches for 36 yards and a touchdown.

Henry's record-setting display drew praise from Garrard, the senior quarterback who etched his own name in the ECU record books as the school's all-time leader in touchdown passes with 59, as well as completions with 627.

"He's (Henry) been running be ball really well all year long," Garrard said. "I expect that from him in the rest of the games."

"I know he's going to show up Thursday, ready to go, ready to have big runs. I'm just going to keep watching from the best seat in the house -- right behind him."

Coincidentally, Garrard's record-breaking touchdown toss was a four-yarder to Henry on the game's opening drive.

Garrard finished the day with a modest 159 yards through the air on 12 of 19 attempts, with one touchdown and one interception. Garrard also tacked on another touchdown on the ground, finishing with 36 yards on ten carries.

With ECU leading 28-6 to begin the second half, the game took an eerie, yet almost predictable turn when true freshman quarterback George Murray trotted onto the field to replace injured starter Gino Guidugli.

Just as replacement QB Casey Printers had sparked TCU to a remarkable comeback attempt against the Pirates, Murray wasted little time kick-starting the Bearcats into gear, marching Cincy down the field to start the second half to cut the Pirates' lead to 28-13. The drive, which covered 80 yards in 11 plays, was culminated by Murray's four-yard plunge at the 10:28 mark of the third quarter.

The 'Cats would claw closer when Demarco McCleskey hurdled in from five-yards out with 12:17 left to play, pulling Cincinnati to within 28-20. The Bearcats traveled most of their 11-play, 75-yard drive on the ground, riding the legs of Murray and McCleskey all the way for the score.

McCleskey finished the day with 97 yards on 18 carries.

While the Pirate defense was holding on for dear life, the offense, much like last week, was searching for its pulse, too. The same ECU offense that ran up and down the Nippert Stadium turf with relative ease in the first half could muster nary a drive in the second, and was limited to just 88 total yards.

According to Garrard, the Bearcats made several changes during the break that took the Pirates out of their rhythm.

"They had a different scheme in the second half on the option," Garrard said. "They started blocking down on my tackle, which was taking away my read."

But the Pirates also had a hand in the furious Bearcat rally, as penalties, turnovers, and special teams blunders gave Cincinnati a huge advantage in the field position war.

Murray gave the 'Cats a chance to tie with his eight-yard keeper with 46 seconds to play to pull to within two. But McCleskey was denied on the two-point conversion attempt , which proved to be the game's pivotal play.

"The guys stayed with it," Griffin said. "We held on and made the play when needed to."

It took the Pirates just 1:13 to get on the board, culminated by a four-yard touchdown pass from Garrard to Henry. The drive was sparked by a 44-yard catch and run by Terrance Copper on second and eight.

Henry pushed the Pirates' lead to 14 on a seven-yard scamper with 4:22 remaining, culminating a six-play, 84-yard drive that elapsed 2:26. The Pirates did all of their work on the ground, highlighted by a 43-yard spurt from Henry.

The Bearcats benefited from a Torey Morris fumble at the ECU 28-yard line to set up their first score of the game, a 27-yard field goal off the leg of Jonathan Ruffin.

The Pirates answered quickly, though, when Garrard capped off a rapid drive with a run from 15-yards out to up the Pirates lead to 21-3. Henry again carried the Pirates most of the way with a 72-yard sprint to set up the score, and finished the first quarter with 168 yards on seven carries.

Henry's third touchdown of the day, a six-yard run off an option pitch from Garrard, gave the Pirates a 28-3 edge. This time, it was Henry's counterpart, Art Brown, that did most of the work on the drive, including a 30-yard catch and run on third and ten.

Ruffin's 40-yard field goal with 1:04 left in the half cut the Pirates' lead to 28-6 heading into the locker room.

The victory marked the second consecutive week the Pirates have put into literal practice Logan's mantra about being willing and able to win on the last play of the game.

"Whatever it takes — that's our motto," Griffin said. "Whatever it takes to win."

The Pirates hope to have what it takes this Thursday night in their showdown with Louisville in Greenville that will determine at least a share of the conference title.

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02/23/2007 01:41:57 AM

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