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Louisville Hijacks Pirates' Destiny

By Denny O'Brien

GREENVILLE — It has almost become an annual rite of passage for an East Carolina football team to lose control of its own destiny with a home loss to a conference foe.

On Thursday night, 19th-ranked Louisville wrote the latest chapter to that seemingly timeless tale.

Just as it had been scripted many times before, the Pirates jumped out to an early double-digit lead. But this time, there would be no happy ending, as Louisville (10-1, 6-0 C-USA), behind the precision passing of junior quarterback Dave Ragone and the receiving of Deion Branch, flew past the Pirates 39-34 to assure itself at least a share of the Conference USA title.

For East Carolina (6-4, 5-1), it must now beat Southern Miss next Friday and hope that Louisville falters against Texas Christian, if it is to share the crown with the Cardinals.

It wasn't until the final second ticked off that Louisville could celebrate, though, as ECU quarterback David Garrard's last heave of hope fell incomplete in the end zone as time expired.

"It was two good football teams, and it came down to the last play of the game, which those things kind of have a tendency to do," said ECU head coach Steve Logan. "We just came up a little bit short."

Before the Cardinals could even blink, the Pirates had jumped out to a 14-0 lead less than four minutes into the game. But Louisville soon settled in, as Ragone found his rhythm, leading the Cardinals to 29 unanswered that put the Pirates in a 17-point fourth-quarter hole that proved too deep to overcome.

The Pirate secondary was no match for Ragone, who finished the evening with 292 yards passing on 22 of 34 attempts with three touchdowns, two of which were hauled in by Branch. It was a career night for Branch, who caught ten passes for 161 yards, including the two scores.

"He (Branch) has a good game just about every Saturday," Logan said. "He's a good player — he's got a chance to play at the next level.

"They're quarterback has eyes for him, and should, because he is just hard to cover. He makes catches in traffic, and gets his eight, nine catches a ballgame."

The Cardinals, who finished with 430 total yards on the evening, moved the ball with relative ease on a soft Pirate defense. But according to Logan, it wasn't due to a lack of effort.

"I don't think they could have played any harder," Logan said. "They chased that quarterback all around the park.

"He's kind of like David. It's hard to sack David Garrard, and it's hard to sack Dave Ragone. We saw two really good quarterbacks tonight."

Perhaps the game's tide-turning moment came when Zek Parker returned the second-half kickoff 91 yards to cut ECU's lead to 21-19. The ensuing two-point conversion attempt was no good, temporarily preserving the Pirates' lead.

The return came as a surprise to Logan, whose team had been solid with its kick coverages all season long.

"We meant to pin him over there on the side line," Logan said. "We had been the number one kick-off coverage unit in the conference all year long — that was a real surprise to give that up.

"To me, that was a big, big deal. That was a surprise touchdown that really knocked us back on our heels."

Then, turnovers began to take their toll.

The Cardinals took their first lead of the night, 25-21, at the 5:37 mark of the third quarter on an 11-yard strike from Ragone to Branch. The score was made possible when H-back Richard Alston's pass was intercepted by Ronnie Gallishaw and returned to the Louisville 43-yard line.

On the interception, Garrard pitched lateraled to Alston, who threw deep and across the field to a seemingly wide-open Arnie Powell. But Gallishaw stepped in front of the pass in the nick of time, spear-heading a crucial 14-point turn-around.

"I didn't see the guy there," Alston said. "Arnie was open and I threw it on a line, but the guy just made a great play."

Despite the interception, Alston had one of his better nights receiving, grabbing four passes for 106 yards and a touchdown.

The Cardinals added to their lead moments later after a Leonard Henry fumble. Six plays later, TJ Patterson carried it in from eight-yards out, to push the Cards ahead by 11.

The Pirates had appeared poised to mount a solid drive when Henry busted up the middle for a four-yard gain. But defensive end Dewayne White delivered a ball-jarring hit, giving the Cardinals the ball deep in Pirate territory.

"Leonard's fumble was really an uncharacteristic event," Logan said. "That really was a big deal."

The Cardinals still weren't finished. On their very next possession, the Ragone-to-Branch battery hooked up twice more, once for 58 yards, before connecting on a four-yard touchdown that proved to be the winning score with 11:59 remaining.

The Pirates didn't go away quietly, though, mounting a manic fourth-quarter comeback that started when Garrard scrambled in from one-yard out on fourth-and-goal to cut the Cardinals' lead to 39-27. Garrard was denied on two-point conversion attempt that could have moved the Pirates to within a touchdown and field goal of tying the game.

Garrard got his team back in gear on its very next possession, directing a seven-play, 67-yard drive that was capped off when he found Alston wide open in the end zone to inch the Pirates closer at 39-34 with just under three minutes to play.

Garrard, who had one of his better games statistically, finished with 284 yards passing, completing 21 of his 33 attempts, including the touchdown. And he seemed to be at his best when the Pirates needed him most.

"David was really pretty to watch late," Logan said. "When we had to throw it every down, he started throwing strikes."

But Garrard gave all the credit to his receiving corps, which has experienced its share of ups and downs this season.

"They (the receiving corps) played well tonight," Garrard said. "If the ball hit them in their hands, they caught it.

"I knew they could do it all year long. I knew they would step up in a big game like this. They did everything tonight that I could ask of them."

Though Louisville held Henry to just 79 yards on 14 carries, the Pirates amassed 451 total yards against the nation's 25th-ranked defense.

But it wasn't enough, as the Pirates last-second gasp for victory would fall just short.

ECU cracked the scoreboard first when Henry scampered in from five-yards out at the 11:49 mark of the first quarter. Garrard did much of the work on the drive, connecting on all three of his passes, including a 50-yard strike to Alston that set up the Henry's run.

The Pirates wasted little time upping their lead, as Henry dashed in from 13-yards out to give the Pirates a 14-point cushion. East Carolina had gotten the ball back after linebacker Greg Lefever intercepted Ragone's first attempt of the night, returning it to the Louisville 13-yard line. Henry scored on the very next play.

Ragone settled down and got Louisville on the scoreboard at the 5:13 mark when he hit tight end Ronnie Ghent on a 17-yard strike on third-and-three to cut the Pirates lead to 14-7. The touchdown culminated a seven-play, 72-yard drive that elapsed 2:59.

The Cardinals clawed closer when kicker Nathan Smith connected on a 21- yard field goal to make the score 14-10. Louisville had penetrated deep into Pirate territory, but Patterson was stuffed for a one-yard loss on third-and-one, forcing the Cardinals to try the field goal.

Logan then dug deep into his bag of tricks and handed the ball to freshman Demarcus Fox on a delayed run for a 34-yard touchdown dart to put the Pirates up 21-10.

On the play, the Pirates lined up quickly in a tight formation, and Garrard handed the ball directly to Fox after the snap, while using receiver Terrance Copper as a decoy on an apparent option.

Smith's second field goal of the night, a 26-yarder from the right hash, cut the lead to 21-13 with 3:45 left to play in the half, culminating a seven-play, 81-yard drive to close out the first-half scoring.

"They are a hurt bunch of boys," Logan said of his players. "They couldn't have played any harder, and they had a real vision. We've just got to get over it. We've got another game coming up next week."

The Pirates will have to mend themselves quickly as much will be riding on next Friday's home game against conference rival Southern Miss. A win will all but assure the Pirates a trip to a post-season bowl, while a loss could leave much in doubt.

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02/23/2007 01:41:58 AM

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