East Carolina won its debut game in the American Athletic Conference thanks to the efforts of Shane Carden and Justin Hardy. The two connected for three touchdowns in the first half en route to a 45-24 victory in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday.
Carden and Hardy’s famous synergy isn’t anything new, but they made a show of it at the expense of SMU. NFL scouts from Kansas City and St. Louis were among the 45,029 in attendance that watched the two connect for 120 yards and three touchdowns.
Even with pro scouts watching them put on a clinic, Carden and Hardy had other people they were playing for.
“We’re playing for our team right now,” said Carden following the game. “Whoever is out there, I like playing good for my parents so they can watch and make them proud. That’s what I’m thinking more of.”
The chemistry between the two also helped Carden surpass David Garrard as ECU’s all-time passing leader. Carden was 306 yards from the record heading into the game and wrapped up the contest with 420 yards.
“I think Shane’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country and one of the best quarterbacks in school history,” said fifth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill. “He improves every day in practice and on the field. He’s an example of what we believe in and how we define our team.”
ECU (4-1, 1-0 AAC) was stalled early on its first drive, but the Pirates came out and opened the scoring on their second drive of the game. They marched down the field before Carden’s deep out pass found sophomore Isaiah Jones in the end zone for the 11-yard score.
Hardy would then drag in touchdowns on the next three drives. His first touchdown was a nine-yard crossing pass near the end of the first quarter. In the second quarter, he made two touchdown receptions on passes down the middle—one two-yard toss and another 30-yarder not much later.
“Was that the first time in his career,” Carden asked the media regarding Hardy’s first ever three-touchdown game. “That’s shocking to hear…But it’s great to get him the ball and him to have a great day like that. Those touchdowns were him making very good plays.”
Sophomore receiver Isaiah Jones quietly made an impact, too. He played with a bit of a chip on his shoulder due to the fact that, as a Texas native, he was never recruited by a Texas program—including SMU. He ended up with nine catches for 130 yards and a touchdown.
“Personally, a little bit. Yes, I did,” said Jones about whether he played with a little more emotion. “I wasn’t recruited by any Texas schools really. Texas A&M, TCU, any of those schools. SMU, as well…I was given a tremendous opportunity here. Coach Ruff believed in me and I’m glad I’m here.”
Even with Hardy and Jones’ performances, SMU (0-5, 0-1 AAC) didn’t let the game get too far out of hand. After ECU went up by three touchdowns, the Mustangs answered with an 18-play, 79-yard drive that consumed just over eight minutes of clock time. They converted three fourth-down situations and eventually had Prescott Line punch in the two-yard touchdown rush.
“From now on, we can’t look over that,” said Zeek Bigger regarding SMU converting five of six fourth downs. “We stopped them some good times on third down, then on fourth down they get the first down. That’s not the type of defense we want to be.”
The Mustangs would exploit ECU’s secondary and come within 11 points of the Pirates in the third quarter. Quarterback Garrett Krstich finished with 42-for-67 with 339 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He was able to take advantage of short, intermediate passing routes to move the ball down the field efficiently.
“Really, it was just the quick passes,” said Bigger of what was problematic for ECU’s defense. “(It was) something we weren’t really looking for at the time and something we didn’t really go over in practice like that… We were rushing them and getting our defensive line back there, too, but you can’t get to the quarterback when he says ‘hut’ and throws it right there.”
In the end, though, ECU’s offense was too much for the Mustangs to handle. The Pirates scored points on all six of their trips to the red zone. In addition to Carden’s four touchdown passes, running backs Chris Hairston and Anthony Scott each ran for a score and Warren Harvey was able to convert on a 24-yard field goal.
Given ECU’s history with conference debuts, coming out with the win in its first AAC game made it something extra special.
“The first Southern Conference inaugural game, we lost. The first Conference USA inaugural game, we lost,” said McNeill. “I guess we did something pretty special to win that first one.”
ECU will now set its sights on its second AAC game. The Pirates will hit the road for a conference showdown versus South Florida this coming weekend.