“Thank You Seniors” flashed across the scoreboard at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium Saturday.
“ECU 16” sat in a column just to the right of the banner. “CINCY 19” sat parallel.
A game that put the 17 seniors through a tough battle in their last game at Dowdy-Ficklen, ended in heartbreak as Cincinnati (7-5 4-4 AAC) kicker Andrew Gantz put a 42-yard kick through the uprights. Cincinnati head coach Tommy Tubberville showed faith in his kicker earlier in the game, letting sophomore attempt a 50-yard field goal and then later on the game winning field goal attempt.
“They didn’t want to kick the fifty yarder,” said Tubberville. “We’re sitting there the winds in our face we needed something good to happen. I’ve seen him kick so many good balls and our special teams coach said punt it, he said I don’t think I can make it and I said yes you can, lets go and he caught the thing perfect.”
Before the game winning kick, East Carolina (5-7 3-5 AAC) put themselves neck and neck with the Bearcats and the hopes to further its season were still alive.
Blake Kemp started at quarterback for the Pirates and continued his good play from last week. Kemp threw for 315 yards and was also the Pirates leading rusher with 33 yards. His lone touchdown pass dropped into the hands of receiver Davon Grayson, who grabbed the ball behind the defenders back. But the biggest play from an ECU quarterback came off the arm of backup quarterback James Summers.
Down by six points, the Pirates were desperately trying to tie the game up and increase its chances for postseason play. Nine yards away from the endzone Kemp’s third down strike to Bryce Williams fell two yards short of a score. The ensuing fourth down play Summers took his first snap at quarterback. Cincinnati sold on the run to stop Summers but the backup quarterback lobbed a pass over the defender and into the arms of Williams for the score.
Despite capitalizing on, at the time, one of the most important plays of the season for the Pirates, ECU’s defense could not contain a rolling Bearcats offense.
The Bearcats accumulated only 21 yards on the ground in the first half. But in the second half, it used the large size of its offensive line to ground and pound the Pirates. Cincinnati handed it off early and often to its three productive running backs and gained 136-yards rushing in the second half. Even when the Pirates stuffed the running attack, Cincinnati receiver Shaq Washington would bail them out.
“We tagged passing plays on the running plays,” said Tubberville. “So if Gunner thinks he can get it in to Shaq that’s the reason he caught fourteen passes then we just go ahead and we fake the ball and throw the short route. I told them I didn’t want any tagging in the second half, linemen we’re going to run the ball. Wipe that out of your mind we’re running the football fortunately it worked. We called a running play instead of reading it and turning it into a pass play.”
Converting 15 of 22 first downs in the game, Cincinnati controlled the ball for most of the second half and sustained long, time consuming drives. This was due in large part to the effectiveness of Washington. The 5-foot-9 Cincinnati senior receiver caught all 15 passes thrown his way and totaled 124 yards with a touchdown. He was most effective on third down converting seven of the Bearcats’ 15 third down conversions.
“It starts with the sticks,” said ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill. “The first down is where we feel like you’ve got to gain control. They’ve got size upfront and mass upfront. That’s the difference in this league, I’ve been trying to tell everyone that. That’s an NFL line they got. Three of the five are going to the league. But again, we’ve got to hold up. Eventually we’ll get there, our kids will get to that size and hold up there. They ran the football and controlled the clock on us, made manageable third downs, hit some big ones. We felt like we had a great game plan for them. Again, 19 points for them, is really holding them under average, but they did make that play at the end to win.”