Four Downs: ECU-SMU

GREENVILLE, N.C. — No. 22 ECU (4-1) held off a second-half rally to win 45-24 against SMU (0-5) at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Here are the four biggest story lines from Saturday's game.

The No. 22 ranked Pirates opened their American Athletic Conference slate with a 45-24 victory against Southern Methodist Saturday afternoon. Here are my four downs from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium:

FIRST DOWN: ECU SURVIVES SCARE IN THE SECOND HALF

Over the last two weeks, everyone told the East Carolina football team that it was going to cruise past SMU to the tune of 40 points or so and would be able to practically empty its bench and play exclusively reserve players in the second half.

And in the first half, it appeared like that might be the case. ECU was up 21-0, quarterback Shane Carden had more touchdown passes than incompletions and many of the 45,029 fans in attendance were likely thinking where the celebration was going to be later in the evening.

That way of thinking soon changed in the second half. With the score sitting at 35-14, SMU scored on a nine-yard touchdown pass by quarterback Garrett Krstich, then turned the Pirates over on downs — leading to a field goal to trim ECU’s lead to 35-24 — and forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff to give the Mustangs the ball at ECU’s 26 yard-line on the last play of the third quarter.

And, in that moment, all of the momentum had shifted to the winless visitors, who had the worst offense in the country yet moved the ball with ease since the midway point of the second quarter.

But just when things were starting to appear disastrous for the Pirates, their defense stiffened by allowing just three yards on the next three plays. SMU settled for a 40-yard field goal try, which could have drew the Mustangs within one score of the Pirates, but Cody Rademacher missed wide right.

It was the break ECU needed as the offense recaptured its rhythm from the first half for scores on its next two drives. SMU would not score again.

“It was greatly important,” ECU linebacker Zeek Bigger said of the early fourth quarter stop. “We knew we were going out there to stop them because we knew we had to get the ball back in our offense’s hands, so we can score.”

Fifth-year coach Ruffin McNeill added, “There’s no such thing as an ugly win — I don’t want to hear none of that. It was a great win. Not just a good win, a great win.”

SECOND DOWN: SHANE CARDEN BREAKS SCHOOL PASSING RECORD

With his 410-yard performance Saturday, Carden passed ECU legend David Garrard to become the school’s all-time leader in passing yards. The senior from Houston completed 31 of his 41 passes for four touchdowns and broke the record on a 30-yard pass to sophomore Isaiah Jones in the third quarter.

McNeill was asked about his quarterback’s milestone after the game, but before he could answer, Carden emerged from behind a curtain to say, “It was all coaching,” and the two shared an embrace.

"I think Shane's one of the best quarterbacks in the country and one of the best quarterbacks in school history," McNeill went on to say. "He's an example of what we believe in and how we define our team."

Carden now holds the school records for career passing yards, completions and touchdown passes, in addition to the single-season marks for most total yards and passing yards.

THIRD DOWN: DEFENSE STRUGGLES AGAINST NATION’S WORST OFFENSE

SMU entered the game having only scored 12 points this season — being outscored 202-12 in four games combined — and started an inexperienced, battered offensive line that had surrendered 30 sacks prior to Saturday.

Early on, it looked the part. But in the second quarter, SMU found success with short, immediate pass plays that the Pirates clearly weren’t prepared for. The Mustangs strung together an 18-play, 79-yard touchdown drive that included three fourth-down conversions and lasted over eight minutes. It was only the team’s second touchdown of the season and ECU went into halftime leading 28-7.

However, SMU discovered an effective method of moving the ball with more dink-and-dunk passes. Krstich, who entered the game with just 279 passing yards this season, attempted 67 passes — completing 42 of them — for 339 yards and two touchdowns to Darius Joseph.

Aside from red-shirt freshman safety Travon Simmons’ first career interception, the Pirates had few answers defensively until its fourth-quarter stop that led to the Mustangs’ missed field goal.

“It was quick passes,” Bigger said. “It was something that we weren’t really looking for at the time and something we didn’t go over at practice like that.”

SMU finished with 390 yards and twice as many points in Saturday’s game alone than it had in its first four games combined.

FOURTH DOWN: PIRATES OPEN AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE PLAY

Moments before the game's opening kickoff, American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco greeted both teams’ captains at midfield and flipped the coin. Although that moment didn't seem like much of a big deal, it represented the completion of the Pirates’ long process of lobbying and working to get into this conference and if they had not done so already, they proved they belonged.

Sure, ECU did not cover the lofty 40-point spread that most Las Vegas odds makers attached to this game, but the offense still proved why it is considered one the best in college football and despite a concerning stretch in the second half, the Pirates still won by three scores.

ECU is the only team in The American currently ranked in the Top 25 polls and after Brigham Young’s home loss to Utah State late Friday night, many prognosticators will likely consider it to be the best team in a non-“Power Five” conference.

If anything, Saturday was a wake-up call that the Pirates are no longer the hunters, but the hunted.

“We learned that pretty quickly,” Carden said. “We understand that we’re going to get team’s best and teams are going to want to come out and beat us.”


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