Three seconds left in the fourth quarter, with a four-point deficit, Central Florida Head Coach George O’Leary went all-in and his only card left in the deck was a Hail Mary from 51 yards. The Knights hit the jackpot and cashed in with a 32-30 victory and a share of the American Athletic Conference Championship.
East Carolina completed a 17-point comeback in the fourth quarter and led 30-26 with just three ticks on the clock. Knights wide receiver Breshard Perriman hauled in the 51-yard heave from sophomore quarterback Justin Holman and dashed ECU’s hopes for a senior-night victory. Deshaun Amos put his hands up in hopes of making a clean stop without a penalty flag while 6-foot-4 linebacker Dayon Pratt and safety Domonique Lennon jumped to deflect the bomb of a pass. Perriman slid in behind the three-deep zone and came down with the game-winning pass.
Although the Knights scored a touchdown to win the game, the Pirate defense allowed only two touchdowns prior to the game winner and also forced six field goal attempts, four of which Shawn Moffitt made. The Pirate defense held UCF to just 4-of-15 on third down and linebackers Zeek Bigger and Brandon Williams did what they have done all season, dug their cleats in the dirt when ECU needed a big stop. UCF was a dismal 1-or-7 on third down in the second half. Bigger wanted the win, but not for his own satisfaction.
“I’m going to miss these seniors,” said Bigger with tears in his eyes. “I’m going to miss playing beside [Brandon Williams] each and every game. I just wanted to win for these seniors…the people who showed me the ropes.”
Although the loss seems to be the end to ECU’s season, the Pirates still have a bowl game on the horizon and there is work to be done for the 21 seniors, who have one final game remaining.
“We win as a team and we lose as a team,” said Williams, who registered 17 tackles against the Knights. “Sunday we are going to come in and put in the work. We will fix things that need to be corrected to win our bowl game and go out as winners.”
Williams notched his fourth double-digit tackle performance of the season and it matched Bigger’s 17 stops against North Carolina as the most for a Pirate this season.
With 5:14 left in the game, ECU marched the ball 68 yards down the field and Shane Carden connected with Justin Hardy for a 13-yard go-ahead touchdown to give the Pirates a 30-26 lead. Carden finished with 36 completions for 397 yards and three touchdowns, while throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble. Hardy hauled in 12 of those passes for 140 yards and the late score.
Defensive Coordinator Rick Smith rallied his troops for one final stop and with 1:47 the ECU offense took over on downs and had four downs to ice the game.
Carden and the offense lined up in victory formation and proceeded to knee the ball two times. UCF burned its final timeout as the Pirates faced a 3rd and 15 at the Knights‘ 20-yard line. Carden rolled out on the next play to kill time. Head Coach Ruffin McNeill let the clock run down before using his last timeout. On the ensuing play, Carden, once again rolled out and burned six seconds off the clock before turning it over on downs.
ECU was faced with a 41-yard field goal attempt, but for McNeill the goal was to burn time off the clock.
“The field goal attempt wasn’t an option,” explained McNeill, since UCF had already blocked an extra point attempt earlier in the game. “We felt if we ran clock they would have to try it against our defense. Our defense played well all night long.”
A facet of the game that held the Pirates back from their full potential was penalties. The penalty bug reared its ugly head once again and ECU found itself with 127 negative yards on a dozen penalties.
“We have done well the last two weeks in regards to penalties,” said McNeill. “Tonight was unusual to me, unusual for our kids.”
In five of the 12 regular season games this season, ECU has collected over 100 yards of penalties.
The ECU defense held the 9th team this season to just one score or less in the fourth quarter of a game, with five of those teams going scoreless in the final frames against the Pirates.