East Carolina entered Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina Saturday and made an immediate impression. South Carolina escaped with a 33-23 win, but the Pirates proved that they can hang with a nationally-ranked team.
ECU's defense came out strong right away. South Carolina went three-and-out on its opening drive. On the second drive of the game for the 21st-ranked Gamecocks, Dylan Thompson was quickly picked off by Josh Hawkins.
Shane Carden led the way as ECU marched down the field on its first two possessions. They moved the ball efficiently and reached the red zone both time, but the Gamecock defense came together and held ECU to field goals both times.
“I'm not a big guy on field goals,” said Carden following the game. “(Kicker Warren) Harvey did a great job. When he was making them, I told him 'Good job. Keep doing your thing. We're going to try and give you some extra points instead of field goals.' The offense expects to score in the red zone. Not field goals.”
Even though the Pirates didn't score touchdowns on those drives, the momentum was still on their side. That changed quickly in the second quarter as ECU began to amass penalties.
Just inside the red zone on South Carolina's 19-yard line, the referees slapped ECU with a five-yard delay of game call. Two incomplete passes and a no-gain run later, it was time to go for another field goal. Harvey lined up for the 42-yard shot only to have it blocked by Gerald Dixon Jr. The momentum belonged to the Gamecocks.
“We got the ball. We were driving it fine,” said Carden. “We were shooting ourselves in the foot with penalties. They were playing good defense. We were getting opportunities and getting inside then we were having a flag or turnovers. That can't happen when you play a good team like this.”
ECU only trailed by four going into halftime thanks to a last-second field goal. Between that and ECU receiving to start the second half, the Pirates had the chance to recover.
It didn't happen. Seven plays into the first drive of the second half, Carden tried to throw the ball away but instead tossed it right to Sharrod Goglightly. He would throw another pick on the next drive and South Carolina opened the game up by scoring 10 points off those two turnovers.
“It was tough,” said running back Breon Allen, who led his side with 58 rushing yards on four carries. “We didn't help our defense by not scoring earlier and we had a couple turnovers. Like I said, it was a tough game. Give all the credit to South Carolina.”
The defense they faced is, more or less, what was expected based on what was seen from the tape. Allen said the Gamecocks were as aggressive on defense as he had seen. “They made more plays than we did and we lost the game,” he said.
South Carolina's three second-half drives combined for just over 20 minutes. The 10 minute and 33 second game-ending drive, which resulted in a Gamecock field goal, is the longest drive under head coach Steve Spurrier's tenure.
“It's hard. They're big up front,” said head coach Ruffin McNeill regarding the amount of time his team's defense spent on the field. “They do a good job running the football. I'm proud of our guys. We'll watch film. Look at how we played our technique.”
There are still positive takeaways in a 10-point loss to South Carolina. The newer faces on the team got a chance to hit the road and play in a noisy stadium one week out of traveling to Virginia Tech. That said, McNeill's 24 hour rule is in effect and the team will begin preparation for the Hokies on Sunday.