The Pirates (6-2, 4-1 C-USA) led by a single possession, 21-13, with just over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. Then, offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley went deep into his play book for a trick play at the perfect time.
ECU receiver Justin Hardy found the edge on an end around and hooked up with a wide-open Isaiah Jones for a 35-yard touchdown.
The score silenced FIU's (1-7, 1-3 C-USA) rally and helped the Pirates clinch bowl eligibility for the seventh time in the last eight seasons. Also, ECU remains the leader of the East Division in Conference USA.
ECU quarterback Shane Carden played another clean game – finishing 23-of-35 passing for 264 yards and three touchdowns without an interception – and in addition to tossing his first career touchdown, Hardy collected five receptions for 136 yards and a touchdown.
As they have done in each of their eight games this season, the Pirates received and scored on the opening drive of the game. Despite a partially tipped pass from Carden, Hardy took a screen pass 44 yards to open scoring. With the touchdown, Hardy ties Lance Lewis for the most touchdown receptions in school history (22).
Later in the first quarter, FIU wide receiver Clinton Taylor gave the Panthers a spark on special teams with an elusive punt return. The 22-yard return set up a made 52 yard field goal by Austin Taylor.
ECU found more success with the screen game on its ensuing possession. Carden hit red-shirt freshman DaQuan Barnes on a bubble screen, which resulted in a 26-yard touchdown. It was Barnes' first collegiate touchdown.
Despite trailing by double-figures early on, FIU continued to move the ball successfully against the Pirates' defense, but was unable to convert on a short-yardage play on a fourth down at the ECU 20 yard line.
Following the turnover on downs, the Pirates marched down the field and reach pay-dirt once more on a four-yard touchdown pass from Carden to Vintavious Cooper.The touchdown was a key third down conversion that put ECU in front 21-3.
At this moment, the momentum inexplicably shifted in the favor of the hosting Panthers. With time dwindling in the first half, FIU was stopped on third-down at the ECU goal-line. And even though his offense had failed on its prior fourth down try, FIU Head Coach Ron Turner went for it again and tailback Silas Spearman III came through on a one-yard touchdown run.
In the first half's final moments, the Pirates put together an effective series in the two minute drill as they feverishly moved into junior place-kicker Warren Harvey's field goal range. Harvey lined up for a 48-yard kick and missed to the right. ECU went into the locker room leading FIU, 21-10.
The Panthers started the second half with possession and continued its success moving the ball. Once again, they drove inside the ECU 10 yard line, where the Pirates defense stiffened. Linebacker Montese Overton sacked E.J. Hilliard on the blind side to force FIU to settle for another Taylor field goal. Overton had six tackles and a team-best three sacks
Although, FIU had scored ten consecutive points and was within one possession of tying the game, the Pirates could not recapture any groove on offense. They went three-and-out after the field goal.
FIU appeared poised for another score when they entered ECU territory again on a defensive pass-interference penalty. On the next play, Hilliard took a shot towards the end-zone that was intercepted by safety Chip Thompson.
Certainly, the takeaway relinquished the Panthers' flow offensively, but ECU failed to stretch its lead until the Hardy touchdown pass. Riley tried the same trick play earlier this season against Middle Tennessee State, but Hardy overthrew Jones down the side-line.
Saturday's game was the first ever meeting between the two schools and might be the last since ECU will join the American Athletic Conference next July. Next Saturday, the Pirates will return to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for their homecoming game against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane.