Four Downs: ECU-Tulane

GREENVILLE, N.C. — ECU returned to the win column Saturday against Tulane. Inside ECU Sports highlights the game's four downs.

East Carolina cruised to a 34-6 victory over Tulane Saturday afternoon in its first game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in nearly a month. Here are my four downs:

FIRST DOWN: Justin Hardy BREAKS FBS RECORD FOR CATCHES

With ECU no longer in the race for an Access Bowl invitation, the largest pull of interest in regards to Saturday’s game centered around senior receiver Justin Hardy, who entered the day four catches shy of eclipsing Ryan Broyles’ FBS record for career catches (349).

Everybody knew that the record was going to fall at some point Saturday. After all, Hardy has caught at least three passes in every single collegiate game he has played in, was coming off a 15-catch performance at Cincinnati and facing an opponent against whom he collected a career-high 17 grabs against a year ago.

It was purely a matter of when and how.

The when was following Maurice Falls’ interception with ECU only leading by a score, 10-7, in the second quarter. On second down and five, senior quarterback Shane Carden hit Hardy on an eight-yard curl route for a first down. It was like light work for the duo, which had run that pattern so many times it could likely do it again in their sleep.

The crowd began to give Hardy an ovation, but Carden and ECU coaches on the sideline motioned to the fans to quiet down as the offense feverishly raced back to the line of scrimmage to run another play.

After the drive eventually stalled at the Tulane goal line and the Green Wave went three downs and out, Hardy finally got his moment.

Fifth-year coach Ruffin McNeill put his arm around the former walk-on from Vanceboro, N.C. and pointed towards the Murphy Center, where a massive banner of Hardy was draped off the side of the building. “I told him your dad is looking and smiling at you,” McNeill said of the moment, referencing the passing of Justin’s father, Sam Hardy, in Feb. 2013.

However, in the immediate aftermath of having just achieved of the most significant receiving milestones in college football, Justin Hardy — as only he can — had only one thing on his mind.

“We need to go score on this drive.”

Carden added after the win, “That’s just the guy he is. He just shows exactly what he’s about and where his mindset has always been. This whole season, when he’s been asked about different awards, records, whatever it’s been … he’s always been about the team, getting himself better and just playing the game.”

On the ensuing drive following the mini-ceremony, Hardy caught a 20-yard pass on his way to nine receptions for 104 yards to set up an ECU touchdown just before halftime. After the game, he visited with about 30 of his family members that were in attendance, which includes his mom, who Hardy said he gave his record-setting game ball to.

SECOND DOWN: DEFENSE SHUTS THE DOOR

Although Hardy’s milestone is going to garner most of the headlines Sunday morning, ECU’s defense was the primary reason the Pirates were able to effectively end their two-game hiatus from the win column.

ECU allowed 54 points in last Thursday’s loss to Cincinnati, yet rebounded to keep Tulane out of the end zone Saturday. It was the second time this season the defense had accomplished this feat, but just the first time since ECU’s 2008 victory against No. 8 West Virginia that the Pirates, collectively, had denied a team of a scoring a touchdown.

Thanks in large part to ECU’s inside linebackers Zeek Bigger and Brandon Williams, who combined for 21 tackles, Tulane was limited to just 24 net-rushing yards and freshman quarterback Tanner Lee was constantly under duress.

In addition to Falls’ interception, the Pirates sacked Lee four times, including a fourth-down quarterback takedown by Montese Overton and Williams.

“You can call it a statement; you can call it whatever you want to. We know what type of defense we are and what we are capable doing,” Bigger said. “It’s been a tough ride … but every time I look at this defense, as long as we play together, we’re a hard defense to play against.”

THIRD DOWN: PIRATES RESPOND FROM ADVERSITY

Prior to Saturday, ECU had suffered back-to-back losses for the first time since 2011.

Both of those games were on the road in less-than-ideal weather conditions. But against the Green Wave, the Pirates returned to their home at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium — where they have now won eight straight games — for the first time since a Thursday night win against Connecticut on Oct. 23.

“It was tough, especially coming off a last-minute loss last week,” Carden told reporters. “Coming off that and just showing what this team was about, and that we’re not going to give up this season and that we still have plenty left to play for, I think that speaks very highly of our team.”

Despite playing two Thursday games, ECU had the luxury of having an open date during the week prior to those games. This week is a different story. The Pirates will travel to Tulsa for a Friday night kickoff, marking the first time this season that they will have less than a week to prepare.

FOURTH DOWN: SUPPORTING CAST MAKE IMPACTFUL CONTRIBUTIONS

Aside from the usual suspects, ECU had several players turn in quiet, yet meaningful performances Saturday.

Overshadowed by all the attention that was paid to Hardy, senior outside receiver Cam Worthy hauled in seven receptions for a team-high 115 yards. Also, with most times three Green Wave defenders preventing Hardy from gaining his record-setting reception in the red zone, Isaiah Jones was left wide open for the game’s opening touchdown on his way to five catches and 68 yards.

“Justin’s a great player and he draws attention from every team. He opens door for other players and I was able to capitalize on it,” Jones said.

Both senior running back Breon Allen and redshirt freshman Marquez Grayson found the end zone as well, combining for 114 yards on 25 carries (4.6 yards per rush). In the kicking game, senior Warren Harvey was a perfect 2 for 2 on field goal attempts to improve his season mark to 11 for 18.


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