East Carolina stormed out of the gates Saturday afternoon with three unanswered, first-quarter touchdowns. Even with a 21-point lead early on, it took a last-minute touchdown to escape Blacksburg, Va. with the 28-21 win over No. 17 Virginia Tech.
Shane Carden threw three touchdowns in the first quarter. The first was a four-yard toss to tight end Bryce Williams, who hadn't been targeted in the first two games this season. Within the next 10 minutes, Carden also connected with true freshman Trevon Brown on a 15-yard pass and Isaiah Jones on a short, two-yard throw.
“They were pressuring us a lot in the first,” said Carden, who finished 23-for-47 with 427 yards and four all-purpose touchdowns. “We took advantage of a lot of that blitz. There were some opportunities where they were showing blitz and rotating. We wanted to get the run game going. They were showing some run boxes and rotating.”
It was the opposite of what ECU experienced in Columbia, S.C. last weekend. The Pirates were able to convert early red-zone opportunities into touchdowns instead of having to settle for field goals. However, Bud Foster's defense made some adjustments that kept Carden and company scoreless for over half the game.
“They were moving around well,” said Carden regarding Virginia Tech's defensive changes. “You're not going to go down and score on every drive on a defense like that. I thought we did a good job starting off, but they were just showing us different looks.”
Carden's first-quarter performance Saturday put him as ECU's all-time career leader in completions and touchdown passes. He passed former ECU and now-Indianapolis Colts quarterback Dominique Davis.
Despite the early lead, Virginia Tech stormed back in the fourth quarter with two touchdowns to tie the game. There was a minute and 20 seconds on the clock and the Hokie defense hadn't allowed a point since the first quarter.
It didn't faze the ECU. A kickoff out of bounds gave the Pirates favorable field position on their 35-yard line. After back-to-back passes to Cam Worthy for a gain of 59 yards and a penalty against Virginia Tech, the Pirates stood on the Hokie one-yard line. Carden rushed over the left tackle and into the end zone for the go-ahead score with 16 seconds left on the clock.
“I thought the offensive line did a great job that last drive giving me time,” said Carden. “We made some big catches and we were able to make plays on that last drive.”
ECU played a tight game on the defensive side of the ball, too. The Pirates forced three-straight three-and-outs to start things off and held the Hokies to just seven points in the first half en route to their first road win over a ranked opponent since winning 31-6 at No. 12 Miami in 1996.
Zeek Bigger tied his career-best of 13 tackles, which he set last weekend, while Detric Allen (10) and Dominique Lennon (nine) each set career highs. Josh Hawkins made a pair of big plays in the second quarter when he picked off Hokie quarterback Michael Brewer on consecutive drives. The defense was also bolstered by the return of Terry Williams, who assisted on a 13-yard sack and finished with five tackles.
“(Virginia Tech) had just done a great job against Ohio State offensively,” said fifth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill. “Our defense played outstanding. Not just good. I thought they made plays. I thought they hung in there. I thought they made plays and they hung in there...Great game. I was proud of our defense.”
ECU also found itself battling its own discipline. The Pirates committed 13 penalties for 114 yards and had a handful of drives stalled because of it. However, the Pirates hung on for the statement win.
Per McNeill's 24-hour rule, the team has a day to enjoy and celebrate the victory before moving on and setting its sights on in-state rival North Carolina. Even after toppling a nationally-ranked team, though, the Pirates still don't feel the program will get the recognition it deserves.
“After this win, we'll probably still be underrated,” said Hawkins. “But, that's how we play. We play underrated. We come out and we fight. When we're down, we fight. Even when we're up, we continue to fight. That's how we operate.”