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Game 5: ECU 37, Houston 35


Game Slants
Sunday, September 30, 2007

By Denny O'Brien

Pirates live to tell about Texas shootout

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

HOUSTON – Better prepare for a shootout when you travel to Houston. That’s what greeted East Carolina in Robertson Stadium, an old-fashioned battle of six-shooters that had no shortage of gunslingers.

And true to tradition, it was the precision passing of an understudy that nearly sliced through the heart of the East Carolina defense, much like many of the performances that torched the Pirates in the past.

Backup quarterback Blake Joseph rifled numerous shots at the ECU secondary — 24 to be exact. In the end, it wasn’t enough.

Two misfired field goals inside the final two minutes gave East Carolina a wild 37-35 win and renewed hope in the Conference USA race.

“This game is a crazy game,” Pirates coach Skip Holtz said. “I’m so proud of this team for the way that they competed, the way that they fought.

“We talked about this is going to be a heavyweight fight, that this is the best team in the league. We feel honored to come in here and have the opportunity to turn and stand toe-to-toe with them and play.”

Houston receiver Donnie Avery certainly provided many opportunities for the Pirates to wilt.

There was his 64-yard touchdown reception featuring footwork that was eerily reminiscent of West Virginia receiver Darius Reynaud last week. There was his stomach-sinking 36-yard scoring haul on fourth-and-eight, which understandably could have left the ECU defense emotionally depleted.

Then there was the curtain call, his 100-yard kickoff return that pulled the Cougars to within two, nearly evaporating all of ECU’s 13-point cushion.

But ECU didn’t shrivel. Not once. Because East Carolina expected an old-fashioned gunfight from Art Briles’ quick-draw bunch, and the Pirates were prepared to take the Cougars’ best shot.

“We talked about it early,” Holtz said. “At Virginia Tech, we said we’ve got to win a baseball score. This one, we said we’re going to have to put up some points. The defense is going to have to compete its tail off.

“I think Coach (Todd) Fitch and Coach Shank (Steve Shankweiler) did a great job of putting this gameplan together from an offensive standpoint. The red zone productivity, I just think that they did a phenomenal job.”

Try perfect.

The Pirates performed with as much precision inside the red zone as they have at any point during the Holtz era. Much of that can be attributed to the resurfaced rushing attack that has been AWOL for much of September, and it was sparked by running back Chris Johnson’s 147-yard performance.

Though not a career high, it was as complete an effort as we’ve seen from Johnson. Instead of that familiar Texas two-step in the backfield, he darted around, past, and over Houston defenders with the type of purpose that has been missing in the ECU backfield since the days of Leonard Henry.

That much of his damage occurred after intermission can’t be understated.

“We came in at halftime and said we’re going to need to score three, maybe four times,” Pirates quarterback Rob Kass said. “Not to take anything away from our defense, but they have a very strong offense, and we knew that.

“We knew our defense would do their best to hold them, but we knew as an offense that we needed to put some points up on the board. We got it done.”

And Kass is largely to credit. Though he completed only 6-of-12 passes, his 110 yards came in bunches, like the momentum-shifting 34-yard touchdown he tossed to T.J. Lee to open the second half.

It was the first meaningful action this season for Kass, and he came out firing from the word “Go.” His accuracy on the deep ball stretched the Cougars’ defense vertically and opened running lanes for Johnson.

For a change, it was the ECU backup QB who delivered the knockout blow. And for ECU’s season, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

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09/30/2007 04:13:35 AM

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