Central Florida had a firm grasp on the share of the American Athletic Conference Championship it came to Greenville, N.C. to fight for. But it wasn’t firm enough as East Carolina clawed back from a 26-9 deficit to take a late lead in the fourth quarter.
The Pirates scored 21 unanswered points in the final 15 minutes and took the lead in the final two minutes. However, the Knights mustered a 10-second scoring drive to take back the lead, and a share of the conference title, as time expired.
THE PIRATES’ FAIRYTALE ENDING SLIPS THEIR FINGERS
Everything was aligned for ECU’s seniors to have the perfect storybook ending to their careers in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. After trailing for the majority of the game, Shane Carden connected with Justin Hardy on back-to-back 13-yard passes—the second of which was in the end zone.
“Cardy,” as the dynamic duo has come to be known, would go out winners after scoring the go-ahead touchdown. The defense took the field to keep the lead intact. Seniors Maurice Falls and Brandon Williams sacked UCF quarterback Justin Holman for a loss of five yards. The Knights gambled on 4th and 20 and turned the ball over on downs.
ECU started its drive in the red zone. The coaching staff decided to run the time off the clock by having Carden kneel. The Pirates left but 10 seconds on the clock after turning the ball over on downs at UCF’s 35-yard line.
Everything slipped through ECU’s fingers in those 10 seconds. Holman took one last Hail Mary shot down field. Dayon Pratt, Dominique Lennon and DaShaun Amos were deep covering Breshad Perriman. Pratt and Lennon mistimed the jump and Perriman made the catch to win the game as the clock hit zero.
The Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium crowd was saving one last round of applause for the seniors for when the game concluded. The shock resulting from UCF’s heroics muted the audience and the team walked off the field quietly.
“It’s tough. For us, as seniors, we played such a good game,” said Carden. “We kept fighting, kept believing. We ended up short…It’s hard. It’s our last game in here. Especially when you fight back and have an opportunity to win…There’s a lot of disappointment and a lot of anger.”
PIRATE DEFENSE KEEPS THE DREAM ALIVE
There would have been no chance for a borderline miraculous comeback had it not been for ECU’s defense. The Pirates proved that UCF’s 26-9 lead at halftime was difficult enough to overcome.
UCF would find itself in scoring position frequently, but ECU’s defense would force it to settle for a field goal. The Knights would find themselves within 25 yards of the end zone 10 times. They were held to field goals on six of those chances and Shawn Moffitt was able to convert four of them.
Add it up and ECU kept 19 points off of the scoreboard for UCF in the first half alone—and 30 points in total—simply by forcing the Knights to attempt field goals instead of letting them reach the end zone.
The Pirates also made every fourth-quarter stop it needed to en route to ECU’s comeback. They gave the offense great field position by forcing UCF to go three-and-out twice and picking up a turnover on downs in their own red zone.
ECU’s defense also made one of the game’s biggest defensive plays to stop the Knights from pulling away. Running back Rannell Hall broke off on a 29-yard run and was end-zone bound, but Detric Allen stripped him of the ball and Zeek Bigger recovered it.
“We can win. There was nothing that was going to stop us,” Bigger quietly said about the defense’s mindset as ECU mounted its comeback. “We can hold them. We knew that.”
Davon Grayson RETURNS TO FORM
Wide receiver Davon Grayson made a statement with three touchdown receptions in his collegiate debut versus Old Dominion last season. He finished the season with 18 catches for 176 yards and four touchdowns before suffering a season-ending knee injury six games into his freshman campaign.
Since coming back, he hasn’t made that kind of impact. In the 11 games prior to UCF, Grayson only had 153 receiving yards—an average of 13.9 yards per game. He hasn’t shown the same knack for making plays he did prior to his injury.
Well, not until the season finale. Grayson hauled in four passes for 68 yards. Carden found Grayson up the middle for 22 yards early in the fourth quarter. He put the Pirates on UCF’s 15-yard line, positioning Carden to target Cam Worthy in the end zone on the next play. That score marked the beginning of ECU’s fourth-quarter, 21-point assault.
“He’s getting his confidence back,” said fifth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill. “I’m looking for Davon to being playing and making his plays. We need him as a weapon. He’s got that ability to finish competitive plays. I’m looking for him to have a great bowl practice and to play great in the bowl game, too. We’ve been waiting on him. He’s been working hard. It’s not because of his work ethic. He works as hard as anyone I’ve ever coached.”
PIRATES SHIFT FOCUS TO LAST OUTING AT BOWL GAME
The mood after the game was a somber one, to say the least. Coaches and players alike were clearly upset with the way the final seconds played out. Bigger and Williams both fought back tears as they spoke with the media.
But the last-second Hail Mary is in the past. The Pirates must first shift their focus to putting the game behind. After that, it’s time to prepare for their final contest of the season.
The team will have a few days to get away from football. After that, they’ll dissect tape and correct shortcomings. They’ll soon learn their destination and opponent. As the date closes in, the team will narrow its focus to its opponent and really delve in and prepare to compete for a postseason win.
“What we’ve got to do is it’s grown-man time,” sad McNeill. “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, tighten your belt buckle up and let’s get back to work. A day tomorrow and then we’ll get back to work. We’ll find out who we play and we’ll get back to work.”
“Don’t let one play define this football team.”