Pirates avoid letdown against Blue Raiders

MURFREESBORO, TENN -- ECU (4-1, 2-0 C-USA) holds on to a, 24-17, win on the road against the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (3-3, 1-1 C-USA).

The East Carolina football team missed plenty of opportunities to put Saturday's game against Middle Tennessee State out of reach in the fourth quarter. But rather than letting its lead evaporate, the Pirates' defense stiffened and made a play

Trailing by a score, Blue Raiders quarterback Logan Kilgore took a shot deep down the field that was acrobatically intercepted by Pirates strong safety Damon Magazu with just 5:10 left in the game.

The offense was able to take it from there. ECU quarterback Shane Carden converted on three third-down conversions to bleed out the remaining time on the clock and seal a, 24-17, win at Johnny "Red" Floyd Stadium.

Carden was 43-for-58 passing for 365 yards and a touchdown and along with his diving interception, Magazu logged a team-best 11 tackles.

After starting tailback Vintavious Cooper left the game in the first quarter with concussion-like symptoms, backups Chris Hairston and Breon Allen stepped in nicely. Hairston rushed for 98 yards on 18 carries, while Allen chipped in for an additional 28 yards on the ground.

Despite facing a double-team on most plays, all-conference wide receiver Justin Hardy had six catches in the second half alone – including a go-ahead 21-yard touchdown grab in the fourth quarter – following a lackluster first half in which he only recorded two receptions.

It wasn't a masterpiece for ECU (4-1, 2-0 C-USA), but nonetheless, a conference win on the road. A win that Head Coach Ruffin McNeill will be more than happy to take home with him.

"It was a fist fight, we knew that coming into the game," said McNeill. "Every week, we have to be ready to pull it out and fight, and be fortunate to win. I'm very proud of how we fought and I'm very proud of our kids."

Continuing the trend it set in its first four games, ECU scored on the opening drive of the game – capped with a one-yard touchdown run by senior running back Vintavious Cooper.

Middle Tennessee State (3-3, 1-1 C-USA) responded with its own scoring drive. Sophomore tailback Jeremiah Bryson plowed into the endzone on a goal-line carry to tie the game at 7-7.

Later in the first quarter, the Blue Raiders appeared poised to take their first lead until wide receiver Kyle Griswould fell down and allowed ECU cornerback Adonis Armstrong to easily record his second interception of the season.

The Pirates quickly gave the ball right back when Cooper received what appeared to be a helmet-to-helmet collision and fumbled. The hit caused him to leave the game with concussion-like symptoms and the turnover led to Middle Tennessee State taking a, 10-7, lead on a 22-yard field goal by Cody Clark.

The lead wouldn't last long. Carden engineered an 11-play, 72-yard drive and scored himself on a one-yard keeper to put ECU back in front 14-10. In the closing moments of the first half, the Pirates had a chance to add to it when they drove into the Middle Tennessee State red-zone. But due to poor clock management, Carden was denied the end-zone on another quarterback scramble and the clock expired before ECU Head Coach Ruffin McNeill could call timeout and salvage a last-second field goal attempt.

On their next two possessions, ECU visited the Middle Tennessee State red-zone, but mustered just three points on a 25-yard Warren Harvey field goal. Harvey was 1-for-3 on his field goal tries Saturday – he missed from 35 and 52 yards away respectively.

Following Harvey's second miss, Middle Tennessee State finally capitalized on one of the Pirates' miscues with an impressive march to start the fourth quarter. On eight plays, the Blue Raiders marched 80 yards that culminated with Kilgore's 26-yard bullet to Tavarres Jefferson for an equalizing touchdown.

Kilgore finished the day 28-for-37 passing for 245 yards with a touchdown, but also, a pair of interceptions as well.

The game was beginning to slip through the ECU's fingers, but instead of allowing its slump to continue, it was provided a spark on special teams. Lance Ray fielded the ensuing kickoff and took it back 51 yards to the Middle Tennessee State 41 yard line.

Four plays later, Carden hit Hardy for a 21-yard touchdown on third down for what turned out to be the decisive score.

ECU's rush defense – who entered the game as the country's fifth ranked rush defense – held the Blue Raiders to just 89 yards on 32 rushes. Their leading rusher, Jordan Parker, entered Saturday averaging 96 yards per game, but only managed 18 yards against the Pirates.

The Pirates will close their season-long three-game road trip at Tulane next Saturday in New Orleans. But at 2-0 in conference play, the team feels they are right on track to accomplish its goal – winning a C-USA championship.

"If you want to win a championship, you have to win tough road games," said Carden. "We know going in that it was going to be a very physical game. They're a tough team. It's a great win for us."

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