Four Downs: ECU-South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Josh Graham breaks down the four biggest story lines in ECU's 33-23 loss to South Carolina Saturday in his four downs.

East Carolina turned in a spirited effort on the road at No. 21 South Carolina Saturday night, but the Pirates’ fourth-quarter rally fell short 33-23. Here are my four downs from Williams-Brice Stadium:

FIRST DOWN: MISSED OPPORTUNITY

It was a long, quiet walk down the visiting tunnel towards the locker room for the Pirates, following their loss to the Gamecocks. From the back of the pack, senior defensive lineman Chrishon Rose broke the silence, yelling ahead to his disheartened teammates, “Keep your head up. We’re a championship team.”

And early on, the Pirates did look like a championship-caliber team.

Their defense forced the Gamecocks into a three-and-out and a turnover in South Carolina territory on their first two possessions of the game. Unfortunately, the offense could not put the hosts behind the eight ball.

Despite marching 89 yards on their first drive, the Pirates had to settle for a Warren Harvey field goal. Then the offense failed to capitalize of their second drive too, which started at the South Carolina 43 yard-line, and ECU was just ahead 6-0 on the scoreboard.

It didn't take much longer for the Gamecocks to remedy their sluggish start. On the ensuing possession, they marched down the field with a methodical, 10-play drive, capped by Mike Davis’ 38-yard touchdown run.

South Carolina’s offense never slowed down from there — scoring on every one of its possessions from that point on — and ECU was left playing catch-up for the rest of the night.

“(South Carolina) is great, don’t get me wrong, but we missed an opportunity tonight,” Carden said. “This offense is good enough to play with anyone. I knew that before, but it was great to come out here and do that. We just got to score in the red-zone, that’s all it is.”

SECOND DOWN: DEFENSE RUNS OUT OF GAS

After stymying the Gamecocks on the first two possessions of the game, ECU could not find any answers defensively. South Carolina attacked the Pirates primarily with its preseason All-American running back, Mike Davis, who compiled a game-high 101 of the team’s 175 rushing yards, while playing with bruised ribs.

It appeared ECU had stolen back momentum in the fourth quarter when Carden hit fellow senior Cam Worthy for a 17-yard touchdown to draw the Pirates within a score —30-23 — with 12:03 remaining in the game.

However, needing just one stop to give its prolific offense a chance to tie the game, the Pirates' defense failed on several cases to get off the field in the fourth quarter. Conversely, the Gamecocks ran the ball 12 plays and converted a pair of third down conversions on their way to a game-sealing, 18-play drive that lasted over 10 minutes, culminating with Elliott Fry’s fourth field goal of the night.

South Carolina was 7-for-13 on third-down conversions Saturday.

“In the end, it’s about executing on each side of the ball,” said ECU outside linebacker Montese Overton, who had nine tackles (seven solo). “And they had more execution plays than we did.”

THIRD DOWN: QUESTIONABLE PENALTIES PROVE COSTLY

As much as I find criticism of officials overplayed and often times over-exaggerated, there is no question that a couple calls from Saturday's SEC crew played a role in the result.

Senior linebacker Maurice Falls was flagged for an unsportsmanlike penalty in the second quarter after he picked the ball up off the ground on what he thought was a fumble. While he sprinted towards his sideline lifting up the ball, the head official felt Falls' intent was to either taunt the Gamecocks or delay the game, prompting the call. The penalty awarded South Carolina yardage that would eventually result in a field goal.

Trailing 17-13, Pirates’ senior running back Breon Allen made several defenders miss on an elusive 44-yard run to the South Carolina 19 yard-line. Running its fast, up-tempo offense, ECU rushed to the line to try and catch a couple gassed Gamecocks offsides, but, instead, its pace was halted by the officials, who moved the Pirates back five yards for running a play “without being given a ball placement.”

Fifth-year ECU coach Ruffin McNeill was visibly displeased by the call and, suddenly, a promising drive that could have put the Pirates back in front had instead stalled. Four plays after the unfortunate whistle, Harvey was sent out for a 42-yard field goal attempt that was blocked and South Carolina took advantage of the prime field position it was given as a result, adding another field goal to stretch their lead to 20-13 just before halftime.

“We play an up-tempo game and we expect the ball to be set in reasonable time. I’ve been around this offense 15 years and we’ve never been called for snapping it too quick,” McNeill said.

FOURTH DOWN: DYLAN THOMPSON OUTDUELS SHANE CARDEN

In the first quarter, Thompson looked nothing like the quarterback that threw for 366 yards and four touchdowns against Texas A&M in South Carolina’s season opener. He started Saturday 5-for-12 on his passes, which included an overthrown pass to Shaq Roland that was deflected and intercepted by ECU cornerback Josh Hawkins.

However, Thompson was incredibly efficient from that point on — completing 20 of his last 26 throws — on his way to finishing 25-for-38 for 266 yards and a touchdown.

While Thompson struggled out of the gate, Carden was dialed in early against the Gamecocks and did everything short of finding the end zone. He started 14-for-18 passing and went into the locker room with neither him nor the offense having committed a turnover.

It wasn't until the start of third quarter that Carden made an uncharacteristic mistake with the Pirates driving towards field goal range. Rolling out of the pocket, the senior quarterback was picked off on a pass he intended to throw away and the Gamecocks, once again, took advantage with a touchdown to stretch their lead to 27-16.

On the next ECU possession, Carden was clearly pressing and attempted to fit a pass through a tight window across the middle of the field and was intercepted again.

“Those are things that can’t happen when you’re playing teams like this,” Carden said.


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