East Carolina, dressed in black from head to toe, struggled against the Connecticut Huskies under the lights in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium Thursday night. Even so, the effort was enough for a victory that makes the Pirates bowl eligible for the third-straight season.
The No. 18 Pirates (6-1, 3-0 AAC) led the Huskies (1-6, 0-4 AAC) 14-0 early in the game, but that quickly evaporated as UConn rallied back and kept it a one-possession contest for the majority of the night.
As expected, quarterback Shane Carden and receiver Justin Hardy got the offense off to a quick start. Carden and Hardy connected for ECU’s first completion of the game—and first of 14 for the duo. Not too much later, Hardy pulled in a 13-yard touchdown pass for the first score of the game.
“Going into the game, you just want to be fast,” said Hardy, who’s 14 receptions for 186 yards are season highs. “Every game we start off fast. That’s what we do.”
ECU’s defense forced a three and out on UConn’s opening drive. When the offense took the field again, it marched 47 yards for another touchdown—this time a 10-yard fade route by tight end Bryce Williams, who now has two touchdowns on the season.
The Pirates’ offense struggled from there. They turned the ball over on the next two drives. The first was a failed fourth-down attempt. The second was an interception in the end zone when Carden seemingly tried to throw it away. Before the end of the half, they’d get stalled and punt and miss a field goal attempt.
“We went in a halftime and made adjustments,” said fifth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill. “I was proud of the kids because they were able to handle making adjustments…We know that we have to stay focused, but sometimes we forget that and we have a hard time staying focused and doing what we do.”
The Pirates struggled to get a consistent run game going early, which forced Carden to take on a hefty portion of the offensive responsibilities. ECU’s offense ran 100 plays. Carden threw 64 times and ran the ball another nine times.
Regardless, running back Breon Allen found a way to leave his mark. He had 14 carries on the evening for 67 yards and a pair of touchdown runs—all after getting banged up in the first quarter and sitting out for a bit.
“Sometimes it does take you a little while to get things going,” said sophomore receiver Isaiah Jones. “But it worked. Breon came out here and had two great touchdowns and then our guys did a great job up front blocking.”
Allen wasn’t the only one to get hurt. Freshman receiver Trevon Brown left the game in the second quarter with a left knee injury.
The ECU secondary had arguably its worst night of the season as both Detric Allen and Josh Hawkins blew coverages in the third quarter that led directly to touchdowns. On UConn’s first drive of the half, Allen fell down, allowing Noel Thomas to pull in a 32-yard touchdown catch via Chandler Whitmer.
Later on in the quarter, after Allen gave ECU a seven-point lead, Hawkins missed a tackle along the sideline and fell. That allowed Deshon Foxx to make the catch and keep on going for the 88-yard score—the longest touchdown reception ECU has surrendered since a 2009 game versus Southern Methodist.
“I don’t believe we are satisfied with the way we played,” said defensive back Josh Hawkins. “We knew it was going to be a tough game, but we have definitely played way better. We made too many mistakes on the defensive end with the secondary. We defensive backs know that.”
ECU turned it around down the stretch. Between a Warren Harvey field goal and Allen’s second touchdown, the Pirates outscored the Huskies 10-0 in the fourth quarter. The defense was able to shutdown whatever momentum UConn had by forcing three consecutive three and outs.
Under McNeill’s 24 hour rule, the team will enjoy and celebrate Thursday’s win. Only after that period will the coaches and players look back at the tape, address those mistakes and shift their focus on their next opponent. ECU will head to Philadelphia next for a conference matchup with Temple.