East Carolina and Cincinnati played down to the wire Thursday night in Paul Brown Stadium. The Pirates had an open date to work on the issues that cost them a sloppy game at Temple and were prepared to take on what coaches described as the best offense they have seen all season.
They came up short, though. A marginal lead late in the game slipped away and cost ECU its second consecutive American Athletic Conference loss.
FIRST DOWN: VICTORY SLIPS AWAY IN THE FINAL SECONDS
East Carolina only led Cincinnati twice. The Pirates had some opportunities early on, but they fumbled on their first trip to the red zone and settled for field goals on the next two.
ECU took its first lead when Shane Carden pitched Justin Hardy the ball for a seven-yard dash into the end zone to take a 20-17 lead in the second quarter. It was short lived, though, as the Bearcats took a 31-20 lead into the locker room at halftime.
The next time ECU pulled ahead, there was only 1:01 left to play. Bearcat quarterback Gunner Kiel had just fumbled the ball a minute or so earlier, where it was recovered by Lamar Ivey on the Cincinnati 27-yard line. The Pirates drove the short distance for 1:06 and even managed to draw a fourth-down pass interference call before Carden scored the go ahead touchdown on a two-yard quarterback keep.
With that, ECU took a 46-45 lead and left Cincinnati with 57 seconds left. Over the course of a 38-second drive, Cincinnati got close enough for Andrew Gantz to nail a game-winning field goal. Had ECU called more running plays instead of consecutive fade passes, perhaps Cincinnati wouldn’t have been left enough time.
“We just wanted to score,” said Carden. “We were moving the ball great. We got down there and we had a short field to begin with. We got down to four downs and got the pass interference and had a couple more there, so it’s not like we scored real quick.”
The two-point lead that resulted from Gantz’s field goal wasn’t the end. The Pirates had 19 seconds to make something happen. They ran a trick play as a last-ditch effort, but it resulted in a fumble that Terrell Hartsfield returned for a touchdown with no time on the clock.
The final two minutes and three seconds were a rollercoaster. From down five, to up by one, and eventually ending with an eight-point deficit, ECU had stolen the game from Cincinnati only to watch it slip away again.
SECOND DOWN: PASS DEFENSE ABSENT DESPITE TURNOVERS
Defensive coordinator Rick Smith had not been happy with ECU’s lack of turnovers this season. He wanted his defense to be forcing two per game, so he made that a focal point of the team’s last open date of the season.
In that regard, the defense had a breakthrough in Paul Brown Stadium. Lamar Ivey, who had not intercepted a pass this season, picked off Kiel twice. He also recovered the aforementioned fumble that set up ECU’s go-ahead score late in the game.
“We were kind of in man coverage,” said Ivey. “I saw the quarterback rolling off so I got off the block and basically made the tackle on him. When he pitched it, I saw it hit the ground so I went ahead and jumped on it.”
Johnathon White also picked off a tipped pass—making him the second defensive lineman to get an interception this season.
Even though the Pirates had three interceptions, the pass defense wasn’t where it needed to be. Kiel found a lot of success targeting Makale McKay because most times he’d make a catch, it’d take a the secondary a few tries to make the tackle. Because of that, he finished with 172 receiving yards on nine catches.
It wasn’t until in the third quarter that the secondary was able to tackle more consistently. Once the tackling got better, ECU was able to force consecutive three-and-outs. The defense made another big defensive stop early in the fourth quarter that kept the game within reach, too.
Furthermore, Kiel oftentimes had plenty of time in the pocket and was able to find wide open receivers. He was able to connect on three touchdown passes in the first half because of that. One was a 55-yard reception by McKay to open scoring, the next was a 17 yarder to Max Morrison and the last was a 66-yard reception by Chris Moore.
THIRD DOWN: PIRATES GET A HOLD OF PENALTY PROBLEMS
ECU also spent its week off remedying the penalty problem that has plagued it most of the season. Coaches brought in conference officials for practice and it seemed to pay off. After accumulating over 100 penalty yards in a loss at Temple, the Pirates were only flagged five times for 38 yards.
On top of that, they were even able to draw penalties from a Cincinnati team known for its discipline. The Bearcats ranked 28th in the nation with 43.75 penalty yards per game heading into Thursday’s contest. By the end of the game, they had been flagged eight times for 64 yards.
When looking at problematic aspects of the game, the coaches were pleased to see that their work during the open date helped correct something that had been such an issue. So, while they’re not happy with the loss, the coaches are proud of the strides made in preventing penalties, as well as forcing turnovers.
"The takeaways by our defense and the improvement on our penalties, I thought that was key,” said head coach Ruffin McNeill. “But did you win or did you lose? There’s no moral victory for us…we had opportunities.”
FOURTH DOWN: JUSTIN HARDY NEARING RECORD
As of the conclusion of the game, Hardy is just four catches shy of the record. However, it almost happened last night.
When other receivers were struggling to get open, Carden would default to Hardy. Either Hardy was able to get himself open in man coverage or he’d just make a play. He made 15 catches for 181 yards and a touchdown.
However, it was just another day at the office for Carden and his star receiver.
“That’s the connection we have,” said Carden. “There’s nothing different that we’ve been doing. He’s just a great receiver and makes plays when they matter.”