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Pirates show progress in AAC defeat

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South Florida quarterback Blake Barnett is sacked by East Carolina's Alex Turner on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018 in Tampa, Fla. (Octavio Jones/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, September 23, 2018

TAMPA, Fla. — Too many times since East Carolina joined the American Athletic Conference in 2014 have the football Pirates faced an insurmountable deficit in the fourth quarter when playing league games away from Greenville.

Saturday night’s 20-13 loss for ECU at South Florida in Raymond James Stadium was not only atypical of most final scores in the high-powered AAC, but it showed signs of progress for the Pirates.

East Carolina lost 61-31 a year ago to USF. Two years ago in Tampa it was a 38-22 setback. The team’s final game of the 2017 campaign was a 70-13 rout at Memphis.

Another league loss by ECU (1-2, 0-1 American) made it 5-12 all-time in AAC road games, but according to coach Scottie Montgomery, the Pirates executed their game plan.

“We wanted to make it a grind-it-out game and wanted it to be a low-scoring game,” he said. “We wanted to make it to the fourth quarter as a one-score game and really grind it out.”

ECU came into the contest as a three-touchdown underdog, but it gained a 7-0 lead with a touchdown on the first drive.

It was 13-13 to start the fourth quarter.

On an otherwise frustrating night for the run game of the 4-0 Bulls, Jordan Cronkrite broke free with 10:13 remaining for a decisive 80-yard touchdown. Excluding that game-winning run and a 66-yard TD pass early in the second quarter, the hosts were held to 150 yards on their 50 other plays.

Pirate defensive lineman Alex Turner pointed to stopping the run as the key for the ECU defense, a unit that ranked last in the country in 2017. ECU out-rushed the Bulls 156-115.

Turner also said some intangibles on defense shined.

“I thinks it’s just mentality,” he said. “As this year has gone on and all the things we have been through and all the adversity we’ve gone through, we’ve grown closer as a team. It really has come down to brotherhood and trusting each other to make plays.”

Turner was part of an aggressive front that secured six sacks of Blake Barnett, a former Alabama and Arizona State passer who the previous week threw for 411 yards in a win against Illinois. Turner led the way with 1.5 sacks.

Devon Sutton, Davondre Robinson and Turner tied for the team lead with five tackles. The night for Robinson, a backup free safety, included forcing a fumble on the first drive of the second half.

The Pirates turned that takeaway immediately into points when Jake Verity made a field goal to tie the game, 13-13. Verity made both of its field goal attempts, but the Pirate offense didn’t reach the end zone after Holton Ahlers’ 2-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 edge.

“I’ve said since spring ball that we have gotten a lot better and we have a lot of talent on defense,” Montgomery said. “They are playing with confidence. It’s like when you throw (receiver) Trevon Brown the ball and he plays with confidence, but we have to get everybody on offense to play with that confidence.”

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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