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Turnovers Sink Pirates; Bowl Hopes in Limbo

By Denny O'Brien

GREENVILLE — If there is one thing at which this East Carolina football team has become increasingly adept, it's jumping out to double-digit first quarter leads.

And if there's another thing with which the Pirates continue to struggle, it's protecting those quick strike margins.

On Friday, long-time nemesis Southern Miss provided the latest sequel to the Pirates' topsy-turvy season by overcoming an early 10-0 ECU surge with a manic 25-point second quarter onslaught that propelled the Golden Eagles to a hard-fought 28-21 victory.

With the win, Southern Miss (6-3, 4-2 C-USA) significantly enhanced its post-season opportunities by becoming bowl eligible with two games remaining.

For East Carolina (6-5, 5-2 ), it marked the final home game for a senior class led by David Garrard, Leonard Henry and Pernell Griffin that had won 29 games over the last four seasons. But instead of celebrating, that celebrated group was sent out reeling, as turnovers, missed opportunities, and a feisty Golden Eagle defense proved too much for the Pirates to overcome.

"The turnovers bit us today," ECU head coach Steve Logan said. "We had been very, very good with the football all year long.

"The two special teams turnovers kind of put us on our heels, and we never could recover. Our defensive kids played one of the more courageous games I've seen in a long time. They gave us every opportunity to try win it with the offensive side of the ball, but we couldn't quite make the plays in the end."

The loss could prove costly for the Pirates, who nine days ago had aspirations of an outright Conference USA championship. Now, with two consecutive losses, Logan's team must sit and wait to learn its fate.

It was perhaps a fitting ending to the Pirates' up-and-down season, of which great things were expected in the preseason.

"It (the season) has been really tough," Logan said. "It didn't seem to balance out much this year, but if you stay in it long enough, all of that stuff is going to happen.

"We're a hard-luck team. At the same time, you've got to make your own breaks, and maybe we didn't do enough of that."

East Carolina added to what already seemed like three seasons full of heartache by committing five turnovers on Friday.

Though the Golden Eagles' defense was disruptive all afternoon long, the Pirates' sloppy play was a result of poor execution, according to senior running back Leonard Henry.

"They (Southern Miss) didn't do anything all game, to be honest," Henry said. "We just hurt ourselves.

"You can't win ballgames with that many turnovers. Coach (Logan) preached to us last night that the special teams had to come through, and obviously they didn't."

Henry finished the day with just 80 yards on 24 carries, but it was enough to push his season total to 1,432 yards, which is a C-USA single-season record. His first-quarter touchdown gave the Clinton senior 18 for the year, breaking the ECU single-season record formerly held by Carlester Crumpler.

Perhaps the most costly special teams miscue occurred early in the fourth quarter when punter Jarad Preston was unable to handle a high snap, which was recovered by the Golden Eagles deep in ECU territory. Though the Pirate defense held, the Golden Eagles did manage to up their lead to seven when kicker Brant Hanna nailed a 30-yard field goal with 11:17 remaining.

East Carolina remained within striking distance throughout the second half, thanks in large part to a Pirate defense that struggled in the second quarter but held the Golden Eagles to just 133 total yards after the break.

Southern Miss outgained the Pirates 362-359 for the game. Even more importantly, the Golden Eagles dominated the turnover war, committing zero to ECU's five.

It was just the second time all season that the Pirate defense held an opponent to under 400 yards. According to Logan, it was one of the more courageous defensive efforts with which he has been associated.

"The way they kept going on the field after a couple of turnovers, making them kick a field goal or getting an all-out stop — that's as good a defense as you can play," Logan said. "It took a lot of courage to keep going out and keep battling, and they did that."

The Pirates pulled to within 25-21 at the 4:06 mark of the third quarter when Kevin Miller kicked his second field goal of the day, this one a 29-yarder. The Pirates drove deep into Southern Miss territory, but a crucial drop by receiver Derrick Collier halted the drive, forcing the Pirates to attempt the field goal.

Even more crucial than the drop, though, was a holding penalty on a 27-yard run by H-back Richard Alston that moved the ball from the Southern Miss four-yard line back to the fourteen.

It was mistakes like that which proved too costly, according to Garrard.

"We just needed to put the ball in the end zone, but we couldn't with all the turnovers," Garrard said. "They didn't really stop us, we stopped ourselves — that's why we lost the game."

Garrard, who finished the day with 199 yards on 18 of 28 passing, fumbled twice on the day and had a tipped ball intercepted with 6:55 to play, which killed what could have been a game-tying drive.

The Pirates got on the board early, marching 83 yards on 12 plays, with Henry punching it in from one-yard out for a 7-0 lead. The drive was fueled by a perfect passing performance by Garrard, who connected on all six of his attempts to set up Henry's one-yard plunge.

East Carolina tacked on a field goal with 24 seconds remaining in the first quarter to push its lead to 10-0. The Pirates marched down to the Southern Miss 26-yard line, but had to settle for Miller's 43-yard boot after failing to convert on third and long.

Southern Miss finally got on the scoreboard with 10:37 remaining before halftime when Kelly found running back Dawayne Woods open in the flat for a six-yard score. On the play, cornerback Kelly Hardy seemingly had Woods wrapped up at the line of scrimmage, but was unable to bring the Golden Eagles' running back down.

Southern Miss struck again, this time with a field goal, after recovering Garrard's first of two fumbles on the day. The Eagles took advantage of excellent field position after Garrard was unable to handle the center-exchange from junior Doug White, to pull the score closer at 10-9.

Following a quick three-and-out by the Pirates, the Golden Eagles managed to take their first lead of the game when Woods scored his second touchdown on a six-yard dart through the middle. It was Woods' fourth carry on the eight-play, 55-yard drive.

Then, freshman kick returner Marvin Townes got into the fumbling act, coughing up the ball at the Pirates' 15-yard line. The fumble set up a four-yard touchdown scramble by Kelly, giving the Eagles a 12-point cushion.

The Pirates answered, though, when Alston found receiver Torey Morris open for a 51-yard touchdown strike off a reverse. Garrard plunged in for a two-point conversion to close the gap to 22-18.

But once again, the Eagles had the answer, with kicker Brant Hanna nailing a 21-yard field goal as time expired to pad the lead to 25-18 at halftime.

At 6-5, the Pirates will have to sit and wait as several C-USA teams play out the remainder of their seasons before learning their bowl fate. According to Logan, the Pirates' won't think twice if they are extended an invitation.

"I've been scarred forever," Logan said. "In 1996, we sat at home at 8-3, and I've said all along, 'One of these days, we're going to be a 6-5 team and go.'

"I think I counted that year four of them (6-5 teams) went, and we sat at home. We do what the system dictates now, and we are a part of the system. We weren't part of the system that year."

While the Pirates are forced to play the waiting game, they are likely to reflect heavily on a season of 'What ifs?,' which took another eerie turn late Friday when 17th-ranked Louisville fell to TCU. That, coupled with an East Carolina win over Southern Miss would have given the Pirates a share of the C-USA title.

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02/23/2007 01:41:59 AM

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