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Inside Game Day
Friday, November 28, 2014

By Al Myatt

Pirates overcome Tulsa's emotion

Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

Coach Ruffin McNeill Post-game Audio...

TULSA, OK Tulsa had the intangibles but East Carolina had the talent in a 49-32 American Athletic Conference win for the Pirates on Skelly Field at H.A. Chapman Stadium on Friday night.

The Golden Hurricane was fueled by the emotion of Senior Night amid speculation about coach Bill Blankenship's future at his alma mater and led 14-7 in the first quarter after blocking an ECU punt in the end zone for a score.

That got a crowd of 15,126 excited about the possibility of an upset.

But the Pirates were able to respond every time they were threatened in snapping a two-game losing streak in AAC road games.

The weather was much friendlier than for the unsuccessful trips to Temple and Cincinnati.

Temperature for the 8:37 p.m kickoff (EST) was a balmy 63 degrees, according to the final statistics book, with south winds at nine miles per hour. The Pirates started out hot, scoring on their customary opening possession with a 75-yard drive completed by a 15-yard Shane Carden pass to Bryce Williams.

"You don't let anything knock you down and you keep on pushing," said Williams of the early deficit. "We just keep on playing our game. Our mindset is to keep on pushing forward."

Williams also had a 12-yard scoring reception in the third quarter as Carden finished 28 of 41 for 338 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. Justin Hardy had nine grabs for 88 yards, including the go-ahead TD late in the first half as he extended his FBS career receptions record to 364.

"We understood their position," Carden said. "It was their last game, the last game for the seniors. They had nothing to lose. They were going to come out and give you everything they've got. They fought hard. We've been talking all season about weathering the storm. Things are going to happen that don't go your way that you can't control.

"We could have played better. When we look at the film, there will be plenty of things we can get better at but we kept fighting. We kept believing."

ECU outgained the Golden Hurricane, 510-388.

Mike linebacker Zeek Bigger had 10 solo tackles, four assists and an interception that he returned 22 yards to set up ECU's second touchdown, which tied the score at 14 on a 16-yard catch and run by Jimmy Williams.

"We've been doing a lot of turnover drills," Bigger said. "I've been saying the whole week that we've got to do a better job of getting turnovers. ... That pick I was just doing my assignment and I ended up running to the right place at the right time. Lord knows I was trying to make it to the end zone. I got a little winded going back to my running back days in high school.

"It got the sideline jumping and gave us some momentum."

Bigger's running mate at inside linebacker, Brandon Williams, returned an interception 37 yards to give the Pirates a 49-25 lead with 11:23 left in the game.

"If we keep giving our offense extra possessions, we feel like we're a team with one heartbeat," Bigger said. "We know our offense can score so the thing is getting turnovers and making plays so we can give them the ball back. ... I know how the other teams feel because I feel the same way in practice."

The offense was stopped on fourth-and-goal at the Tulsa 1-yard line with 2:09 left in the first half and the score tied at 14, but ECU's defense forced an incompletion on 3rd-and-5 from the Golden Hurricane 7-yard line. ECU got the ball back on the Tulsa 40 with 1:08 left in the half and scored on a 4-yard pass to Hardy to take the lead for keeps just 14 seconds before intermission.

"Not scoring and then coming back not trying to do anything over the top and just going out and scoring just speaks highly of our team," Carden said.

The Pirates had a lot of contributors in dropping Tulsa to 2-10 for the season and 2-6 in league play.

Cam Worthy had five catches for 98 yards. Isaiah Jones accounted for 38 yards with four receptions. Davon Grayson had two catches for 41 yards.

Chris Hairston picked up 91 yards on six carries. Cory Hunter ran for his first career score.

"That was a team win," said ECU coach Ruffin McNeill after the Pirates improved to 8-3 overall and 5-2 in the AAC. "Wins on the road in our conference and in the country are hard. You'll see that through this weekend and all the holidays. ... Really proud our kids hung together as a team. We knew we'd face a very inspired group."

Bigger said the six-day game week was tough and the Pirates have another one coming up. ECU will experience the same emotion that Tulsa did Friday night with its seniors playing their final home game against Central Florida to close the regular season.

"Right now, we're thinking about UCF," Carden said. "Senior Night back home (7:30 p.m., Thursday, ESPN) is my last game at Dowdy-Ficklen. That game is going to mean a lot for me so I want to make sure I'm 100 percent."

E-mail Al Myatt.

PAGE UPDATED 11/29/14 03:14 AM.

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