Boos rained down on East Carolina University head coach Scottie Montgomery as he made a decision to punt on fourth-and-one with 2:32 left in the fourth quarter.
Montgomery’s trust in the defense was rewarded, as the defense made big play after big play down the stretch, and sophomore Reid Herring returned to march the offense down the field to set up a Jake Verity game-winning field goal.
In the end, ECU (2-2, 0-1 AAC) showed off its newfound resiliency in a close 37-35 win over Old Dominion University, a win which also displayed the program’s growth in the last year.
That growth has come so far that Montgomery said even the 2017 Pirates would not have been able to pull out a win in that type of game.
“No (they wouldn’t). That’s not a tough question,” Montgomery said. “We didn’t play through the echo of the whistle last year. This year, we have complete trust in our entire football club. We are a much better team this year.”
ECU would be tested time and time again Saturday afternoon. Quarterback Reid Herring showed no effects from his ankle injury in the first half and was off to a great start, starting 15-for-20.
But it wouldn’t last, as Herring said his ankle started hurting and Montgomery said Herring’s conditioning was a concern that was highlighted by his second interception of the day which came on an overthrown ball. The offense started to sputter and lost the lead.
ECU was down 27-21 with more than nine minutes left in the third quarter, and Holton Ahlers ran for a 49-yard touchdown which gave life to an ECU crowd that had become quiet.
With Herring hurting and Ahlers igniting the crowd, Ahlers stayed in and ran the offense for the next three possessions, but the offense struggled and punted all three times. Herring re-entered the game the next possession with ECU down.
After sitting out the last three possessions, Herring would come back in to lead a nine play, 77-yard drive which ended in a touchdown.
"I just had to stay focused in case they called my number again," Herring said. "I didn't execute that well. They took me out, put Ahlers in, he scored on that big run. When I got my chance to get back in, I just tried to do my best to make plays and win the game."
The extra-point was blocked and ODU held on to a 35-34 lead as the ECU defense got tested again. The defense quickly forced a punt, and when the ECU offense faced a fourth and one with under three minutes to play, Montgomery decided to punt away.
Even with all three timeouts in hand and new confidence in the defense, fans were upset and let Montgomery hear it.
"As a head coach, you can't be afraid to be booed," Montgomery said. "You have to be able to stick to the play, and with three timeouts there, I knew we had time. There's a lot that you can do with stopping the clock. Our defense played really good most of the game, and I wanted to put it back in their hands.”.
The defense would meet the challenge again, making Montgomery’s decision payoff as it forced a punt in less than thirty seconds of game time and ECU got the ball back with 2:02 left.
“We believe in every part of our football club," Montgomery said. "I have a lot of faith and trust in different facets of our time. I don't ride the emotional roller-coaster because of our guys.”
Herring would lead a nine-play, 46 yard drive in just over a minute that had plenty of drama. ECU has another fourth down, and without the option of punting, Herring completed a pass to Taj Deans for first down. Later, a pass interference would put ECU at the 24-yard line.
From there, Herring had a busted play where he threw the ball right to an ODU defender who appeared to bobble the ball as he came down.
“We had a busted play right there," Herring said. "The ball was in the air, and I was like, dang, I really hope the game doesn't end like that. I saw their safety running for the ball. It was almost like everything stopped. Thankfully he was out of bounds and bobbling it.”
The play was reviewed and in a huge break for ECU, it was ruled an incompletion and ECU retained possession. ECU would play it safe, running the ball the next two plays to force ODU to take timeouts.
That would set up Verity’s 38-yarder which gave ECU the final lead. Faced with its last test, Blackwell’s defense got to the quarterback two plays in a row, forcing an incompletion and an intentional grounding that ended the game.
It was part of another dominant defensive line performance, featuring eight sacks (ECU had eight sacks all of 2016) led by Nate Harvey’s three sacks. That followed a six-sack performance against the University of South Florida last week.
"I was very, very happy with what we were able to do up front," Montgomery said. "I joked around with our guys all week that the only way you can be a team that's known to create pressure is to be able to create more than six sacks. That's exactly what we did."
It highlights a breakout season so far for Harvey, who has six and a half sacks and 11 tackles for loss, both team-highs. Harvey says Blackwell’s new defense has a lot to do with it.
"It's real fun out there," Harvey said. "Just running around and playing fast feels real good. (defensive coordinator David Blackwell) just believes in us. He told us to go get (LaRussa) and we did."
The big play hurt ECU again, allowing the 49-yard touchdown pass that gave ODU a 35-28 lead in the fourth quarter. ECU had eight penalties for 86 yards called against it. It had a tipped pass intercepted and returned 75 yards, which led to a quick touchdown.
There was every opportunity for ECU to face another crushing defeat, like the season-opening loss to NC A&T or the almost upset of USF. This time however, the young Pirates team found a way to win, making the win that much sweeter according to Montgomery.
"This is probably our most gratifying win as a program," Montgomery said. "This was a big-time fourth-quarter victory. Defensively, we bent in a lot of situations, but we didn't break."