ECU (9-2, 6-1 Conference-USA) has now beaten North Carolina and N.C. State in same season, which it had never done before, as it heads into an important regular season finale at Marshall.
Shane Carden supplied another five-touchdown outing (three passing, two rushing) and was an efficient 23-of-30 on his throws. He had a hand in each of ECU's three first-half touchdowns – on its first four possessions, nonetheless – to give the Pirates' a commanding 21-7 lead at halftime.
ECU started the second half in a similar fashion by scoring touchdowns on back-to-back possessions, culminating with Breon Allen plunging into the end-zone for a three-yard score. The Pirates led the Wolfpack (3-8, 0-7 ACC), 35-7, at the 5:02 mark of the third quarter to put the game out of reach.
"I was proud of the way our group prepared last week and were able to come in and I thought we executed fairly well," said ECU coach Ruffin McNeill. "Coming into this game in the middle of the conference race is tough and to be able to keep focus on as big of a game as this, being an in-state rivalry … I'm very proud of them."
Carden's go-to target, junior wide receiver Justin Hardy, collected a game-best eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. Hardy broke the school-record for receiving yards in a season against the Wolfpack, which was previously held by Dwayne Harris (1,123).
The Pirates rushed for 170 yards on Saturday, led by tailback Vintavious Cooper. The 5-foor-9 senior from Homerville, Ga. dashed for 148 rushing yards on 22 carries for his third 100-yard performance of the season to add a much-desired balance to ECU's offense.
"We just try to stay balanced each game," said Carden. "There are some games where they try to take away the run game or our quick game and we'd have to change it up a little bit, but I thought we did a great job at play-calling, and checking and balancing this offense out."
(Cooper had a game-best 148 yards rushing Saturday)
N.C. State came out of the gate firing despite entering Saturday's action on a six-game losing skid. Paced by Arkansas-transfer quarterback Brandon Mitchell, the Wolfpack matched ECU's opening touchdown drive with a 14-play, 76-yard drive, capped by a four-yard scoring play from Mitchell to tailback Tony Creecy.
Mitchell was 5-of-5 passing on the drive, but never could recapture a groove offensively until the game was in-hand. In lieu of his struggles, Mitchell had by-far his best performance statistically – amassing 312 yards on 28-of-44 passing and four touchdowns with no interceptions. It was the first time he had eclipsed 200 yards passing this season.
N.C. State would not crack the score-sheet again until Mitchell hit Jumichael Ramos on a 2-yard fade pattern at the 5:22 mark of the fourth quarter. On the ensuing possession, The Pirates caught the Wolfpack off-guard while they were attempting to drain out the remainder of the clock. ECU wide receiver Lance Ray hauled in a spectacular 25-yard touchdown on a third-down fade from Carden.
That stretched ECU's lead back to 42-14 with less than two minutes left in the game. But instead of accepting a lop-sided loss, N.C. State's first-year coach Dave Doeren demanded his team to close the game strong. Mitchell engineered a pair of last-minute touchdown drives to trim ECU's lead to just, 42-28, thanks in large-part to a successful onside-kick attempt.
"We played until the end and I'm very proud our guys for that," said Doeren. "We didn't make enough plays defensively or offensively in the first half when we came alive in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, it was a little too late."
The key to the Pirates' stymying the Wolfpack was limiting their productivity on the ground and early downs, thus making them one-dimensional and forcing Mitchell to throw the ball frequently. Although, N.C. State finished with 129 rushing yards, it averaged just 3.3 yards per carry.
Friday's game in Huntington, W.Va. between ECU and Marshall will decide which team represents the East Division of C-USA in the conference championship game. Kick-off time is set for Noon.
"We'll have a rushed planning day with the staff because we'll have to move everything up a day," said McNeill. "We'll attack it early (Sunday) and we'll get involved in getting the plan for Marshall. It will have to be a quick plan."