Twenty-four point underdogs at home, it took a walk-off 32-yard field for the University of Cincinnati (7-1, 4-0 AAC) to defeat the East Carolina University (3-6, 0-5 AAC) Pirates by a score of 46-43 on Saturday.
“It’s so tough to win college football games and you’re playing a team like that and you have the opportunity,” head coach Mike Houston said. “We just couldn’t make the plays at the right times. You’re going to look tomorrow at 20 different plays, if you make any one of them, you win the game. Credit to the kicker from Cincinnati, that’s a heck of a kick. That’s a big time pressure kick.”
It has been five-plus years since ECU knocked off a ranked opponent inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. That came against the No. 25 ranked University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Sept. 20, 2014, a game in which the Pirates posted a stadium-best of 70 points.
On Saturday, taking on the No. 17 ranked Bearcats of Cincinnati, ECU held the advantage for much of the contest, but were outscored 25-12 in the second half, resulting in the sixth loss for the program in 2019.
“I’m just so proud of the kids,” Houston said. “When I stood here last December, nobody believed in themselves. Now, you have a group and they fully expected to win that ball game, that’s the tough thing.”
Down 21-14 at the end of the first quarter after allowing 200 yards of offense to the Bearcats, the Pirates kicked their offense into high-gear. Passing touchdowns to sophomore tight end Zech Byrd and freshman wide receiver Jsi Hatfield vaulted ECU into the lead late in the second quarter.
Up 28-21 following Hatfield’s score, the Pirates maintained their lead for the entirety of the third quarter. Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers finished the night with four passing touchdowns, adding another with his legs. The last of those scores through the air, a nine-yard pass to redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Snead, gave the Pirates a two-score edge at 40-28 after a failed two-point conversion.
In retrospect, the Pirates would likely have preferred the extra point in that situation. Hindsight, however, is always 20/20 and not many people, save Cincinnati’s sideline, could have seen what was coming next.
Clinging to a five-point lead following a Cincinnati touchdown earlier in the fourth quarter, ECU was driving. A long pass completion to freshman wide receiver CJ Johnson of 15 yards and another to sophomore wide receiver Blake Proehl spanning 17 yards aided the Pirates in driving 38 yards in eight plays. On the ninth play, however, Ahlers rolled to his left and fired a pass to a waiting Bearcat defensive back.
Hitting freshman cornerback Ahmad Gardner in stride, he was able to return the pass 62 yards to the end zone, giving Cincinnati its first lead since the end of the first quarter.
“It was a hitch, we threw it early on, it was off coverage,” Ahlers said. “He just kind of baited me into it, I should have known they was going to bait me. Just got to learn from it.”
With still 4:38 left on the clock, Ahlers hooked up with Johnson once again, this time for catches of 27 and 17 yards, putting the Pirates in field goal range for junior kicker Jake Verity. In the process, Johnson set a conference and school record for receiving yards, racking up 283 total on 12 catches.
Verity, meanwhile, was true from 27 yards, leaving just 110 seconds for Cincinnati to either win it, or send the contest into overtime. Interested in an extra quarter the Bearcats were not. Sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder, like Ahlers did earlier in the quarter for the Pirates, moved his team into field goal range, ripping off a 30-yard rush and completing multiple short passes.
Three timeouts, one by Cincinnati and two by ECU later, and graduate student kicker Sam Crosa nailed a 32-yard field goal as the clock hit four zeros, walking off the Pirates and capping off a record-setting night for the home team on a sour note.
“Our locker room is very quiet. They invested a lot and when you invest a lot, it hurts when you don’t achieve what you set out to achieve,” Houston said. “This continues to validate everything we’re doing. You come back and you go to work and you push yourself to get better every single day. We lean on our core principles right now as we’re building the program and it validates all the work they’re putting in.”
To even be in a position to upset the Bearcats is somewhat of an accomplishment for the Pirates. All night long, Cincinnati had zero answers for ECU’s passing game despite entering the night with a top-50 unit in that statistic. Junior Bearcat cornerback Coby Bryant was tasked with tailing Johnson all night long, incurring multiple defensive pass interference calls in the process.
The holding and jawing after plays had little impact on Johnson, however, as the freshman busted some impressive records, helping his quarterback do the same in the process.
Former ECU standout receiver Trevon Brown’s school and conference record is no more as Johnson bested Brown’s 270 receiving yards on the Pirates’ final drive of the game. Brown’s mark, which also came against Cincinnati (2017), stood for 22 games. Johnson also set ECU’s freshman receiving mark with his 283 yards while all 12 of his catches went for at least 10 yards.
“It means a lot but honestly, I can’t do it without my team,” Johnson said. “If we ain’t got the offensive line protecting for him to throw me the ball, I can’t get the ball. If we don’t have other people running routes that take away defenders, then I wouldn’t be open.”
Early on, head coach Mike Houston and the offense all but scrapped the run game. Despite breaking 100 yards on the ground as a team, Ahlers attempted 52 passes compared to just 35 rushes as a team, a tendency that kept the Pirates in the contest.
Aside from Johnson, whom he targeted 20 times, Ahlers made a 100-yard receiver out of sophomore wide receiver Blake Proehl on eight catches, while Hatfield narrowly missed the mark himself (96 yards). All told, Ahlers ended up with a school record 535 passing yards on a 32-for-52 effort, throwing just one costly interception.
Defensively, despite giving up 487 total yards to the Bearcats, ECU’s defense played well. Sophomore safety Daniel Charles logged two interceptions, becoming the first Pirate defender since Lamar Ivey in 2014 to do so.
“I was just playing the defense,” Charles said. “He ran an over route, by the time I figured out he was running an over route, I looked back and the ball was in the air. I just went and got it.”
Both of Charles’ picks came in the first half, with the second directly leading to a 27-yard field goal that gave the Pirates a 10-point halftime edge.
On the field for 63 plays on a chilly night in Greenville, North Carolina, however, ECU’s defense waned when it counted the most. Heralded for its second half performance this season, Cincinnati entered the evening having outscored its opponent 62-27 in the third quarter through seven games. With just seven points on Saturday in the frame, the Bearcats did their damage against the Pirates in the fourth quarter, outscoring them 18-3 in the final 15 minutes.
While a loss is a loss, Saturday proved the Pirates can play at a high-caliber against a nationally ranked opponent. With 638 yards, ECU outgained Cincinnati by more than 150 yards and possessed the football nearly 10 minutes longer.
Nevertheless, a key Pirate turnover late in the game, as well as an inability to punch the ball into the end zone late, hampered the home squad in their bid for an upset.
“It’s something we got to continue to improve on,” Houston said. “We had our shots down there,
we had a couple play calls right there that we didn’t execute very well that were there. We got to continue to get that cleaned up. I think we got to continue to improve in the run game, certainly that helps tremendously in the red zone. We’re getting there.”
The Pirates will be back in action on Saturday in Dallas, Texas when they face Southern Methodist University (8-1, 4-1 AAC). Kickoff is slated for 11 a.m. local time.