Four Downs: ECU-USF

TAMPA, FLA — No. 19 ECU (5-1, 2-0 AAC) came from behind to win on the road at USF (2-4, 1-1 AAC) at Raymond James Stadium Saturday. Inside ECU Sports shines the spotlight on the game's four biggest story lines.

East Carolina rallied from a double-digit halftime deficit to capture its first American Athletic Conference victory on the road at South Florida, 28-17. Here are my four downs from Saturday night:

FIRST DOWN: SURVIVE AND ADVANCE

This one had all the makings to be that one inexplicable loss on the schedule that leaves you scratching your head and spoils any hope of the Pirates truly bursting onto the national scene. They were frustrated — committing five personal fouls in the first half alone — playing in a road environment where they could not draw any energy from the stands.

However, rather than continuing to spiral downward and let its possible dream season melt away in the humid Florida heat, ECU got off the mat and found a rhythm offensively.

Penalties could not even slow down the offense in the second half. Despite three holding penalties on one third-quarter drive, which forced the 19th ranked Pirates to convert on a 1st and 30, ECU still found the end zone on freshman running back Marquez Grayson’s first career TD run; a 27-yard scamper to cap a 12-play, 84-yard drive.

The scoring drive set the tone for two more fourth-quarter touchdown drives that ended with touchdown runs by senior Breon Allen and freshman Anthony Scott, effectively putting the game away.

"We know that every game is not going to be perfect," Allen said. "We know we're going to get everybody's best shot being ranked in the conference and we just showed how resilient we were in the second half."

During the rally, ECU’s defense shut out the Bulls in the second half and bottled them up for just 124 yards.

SECOND DOWN: THE NARRATIVE HAS CHANGED

In years past, this kind of game was always a loss for ECU. The early developments may have brought back bad memories for Pirate fans who remember the 1999 UAB loss in Birmingham, Ala. or, more recently, last year’s triple-overtime heart breaker in the Superdome to the hands of Tulane.

It had all the makings. The Pirates were far from sharp out of the gates, USF had a recipe that was working — featuring an effective balance of run and pass — and the game was played in half-empty Raymond-James Stadium. Not to mention, ECU had never beat USF in school history.

There was frustration in the closing moments of the second quarter. Poor clock management and an interception by quarterback Shane Carden, coupled with a costly personal foul by defensive end Fred Presley allowed USF a last-second field goal to extend its lead to 17-7 going into the locker room.

Despite all those aforementioned variables being in play, the ECU team that took the field in the second half was almost night-and-day different from the one that played the first. Aside from a few holding penalties, the Pirates were flawless in the second half on both offense and defense.

And before too long, the complexion and the mood of the game had completely changed. Rather than expecting the other shoe to drop, the game seemed like it was never in doubt in the fourth quarter.

Although the Pirates were not impressive for 60 minutes, in the end, they were good enough when it counted and found a way to rally for a win on the road — which fifth-year coach Ruffin McNeill expressed wasn’t easy to do.

“To get wins are hard. To get conference wins are even harder. To get conference wins on the road is extremely hard,” said McNeill.

THIRD DOWN: PIRATES GROUND GAME OUTSHINES AERIAL ATTACK

On a night Carden had a season-low 250 passing yards, all four of ECU’s touchdowns were scored by a running back Saturday.

Sure, it wasn’t the season-high 343 rushing yards ECU had against North Carolina three weeks ago. But considering the circumstances, the 231 yards the Pirates rolled up on the Bulls was easily the best rushing performance of the season and maybe the best during Lincoln Riley’s five years as an offensive coordinator.

Allen, a Florida native, led the bunch with 124 yards on 18 carries (6.9 yards per rush) and a touchdown run, in addition to hauling in a 35-yard pass that also went for a score. Then, there was the supporting cast. Grayson totaled 42 rushing yards on five carries (8.4); Scott 39 yards on four attempts (9.8); and junior Chris Hairston 20 yards on three carries (6.7).

Following the game, Allen named off the entire starting offensive line to credit them for his success before telling reporters what kind of message he felt he and his teammates in the backfield sent tonight.

“We know what we can do inside here and today we showed we are a complete team,” he said. “People doubt them, say we can’t do this, can’t do that, ‘we’re just a throwing offense,’ and today, they showed otherwise.”

FOURTH DOWN: PENALTIES ARE A GROWING PROBLEM

ECU entered Saturday’s game tied for 98th nationally for the fewest penalties per game (7.8) and did itself no favors in trying to improve that number against USF. The Pirates were flagged 12 times for 148 yards, which include six personal fouls.

In the first half, these penalties killed drives and on one occasion prolonged one for USF when senior outside linebacker Maurice Falls was whistled for a suspect horse-collar tackle in the backfield. Freshman running back Marlon Mack scored on the next play to give the Bulls a 14-7 lead.

Several holding penalties negated big plays in the second half and pushed the Pirates far back behind the chains. Fortunately for ECU, USF was nearly as careless on its way to eight infractions for 59 yards.

“We will address the penalty situation,” McNeill said. “We’ll watch the film to see exactly what we have to do to correct that. And we’ll do that. We’re not afraid of that, not afraid to teach.”


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