Pirates clip Owls behind strong defense

GREENVILLE, N.C. – ECU advances to 2-0 after a 31-13 win against the Florida Atlantic Owls Thursday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

Five days after rushing for a net of just 34 yards and allowing 38 points, the East Carolina football team had a complete reversal of performance. Behind their opportunistic defense and steady running attack, the Pirates coasted past Florida Atlantic, 31-6, to advance to 2-0.

Under the lights at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, ECU's defense smothered the Owls throughout the night with its three turnovers -- which led to 10 points -- and six sacks. And for the first 59 minutes, the Pirates held the Owls out of the endzone until Biletnikoff Award Watch List wide receiver William Dukes hauled in a touchdown catch on fourth down in the game's closing seconds.

Leading the way in tackles was the surprising duo of linebackers Brandon Williams and Zeek Bigger. Each tallied nine tackles apiece.

ECU Head Coach Ruffin McNeill said the cause of his defense's success was, "great run-gap intergrity, great pass-lane integrity, keep covering the ball on the back-end, contain the quarterback, and takeaways. (Defensive Coordinator) Rick (Smith) has been known for takeaways. Tonight … we did a good job, we got three."

As for the offense, it wasn't quarterback Shane Carden dazzling on the national stage while wearing the team's new all-black uniforms. Rather senior tailback Vintavious Cooper finished with a touchdown to along with his team-bests in both rushing (95) and receiving yards (49).

All-together, the Pirates collected 110 net yards on 34 carries against the Owls – including a four-yard touchdown run by Chris Hairston, which was the first collegiate score.

Now with its first two games behind them – ECU starts 2-0 for the first time since 2010 – the team has its sights set on a critical three-game stretch that begins with the Virginia Tech Hokies coming into Greenville Sep. 14. Having won an offensive shootout and impressed with a stout defensive performance, the Pirates feel they can win many different ways.

"I think that's the mark of being a pretty good football team," said McNeill when asked about the numerous ways his team can make plays. "There's no such thing as ugly wins. The last thing I told them tonight before we left to come over to the stadium was win the football game."

Though, there may not be such a thing as an ugly win, the ECU offense was sloppy early on, especially in the penalty department. Despite a pair of penalties and a near delay of game that forced the Pirates to call timeout on the first drive of the game, Carden methodically march the offense 81 yards on 11 plays, capped by an 18-yard touchdown pass to true freshman Davon Grayson.

With two grabs for 29 yards and the score tonight, four of Grayson's first six collegiate catches have gone for touchdowns.

But after the opening series, ECU continued its trend of sloppiness, which began to turn momentum in the favor of the visiting Owls. FAU kicker Mitch Anderson drilled back-to-back field goals from at least 40 yard away to cut the deficit to just 7-6 with 11:55 left until halftime.

Then, the offense was given the shot in the arm it needed, thanks in part to a game-changing play on special teams. On the ensuing kickoff, return specialist Lance Ray found a hold and raced 85 yards before being taken down at the FAU 12-yard line.

A couple plays later, ECU capitalized on Ray's return with a one-yard touchdown strike from Carden to Justin Hardy, which was Hardy's first touchdown catch of the year.

"That was awesome," said Carden, who finished 17-for-25 passing for 191 yards and two touchdowns. "I went up to (Ray) after the drive and told him that was his drive. It was a great return to give us a short field position."

The momentum wouldn't stop there. On the next play from scrimmage, Owls freshman Greg Hankerson's pass was picked off by linebacker Maurice Falls and led to a 7-yard touchdown run by Cooper. The Pirates went into halftime leading 21-6.

ECU's defense continued where it left off in the second half by forcing a pair of turnovers in the third quarter – including a interception by sophomore cornerback Josh Hawkins, who nearly hurdled over a defender and scored, but was ruled out three yards shy of the goal-line.

"I ran up on the receiver, he bobbled it and I ended up catching it," said Hawkins of his interception. "I leaped in the air … and if I stretched out a little more I may have scored."

About halfway into the fourth quarter, junior signal caller Cody Keith made his collegiate debut for the Pirates. In the abbreviated stint, Keith went 3-for-5 for 11 yards, with his two incompletions being dropped passes.

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