The East Carolina football team has posted consecutive wins in each of coach Mike Houston’s three seasons, finalizing it this year with a 31-28 tight victory over Charleston Southern on Saturday.
ECU fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter, then stormed in control with 31 unanswered points, but still needed a final defensive stand at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at the buzzer to hold off quarterback Jack Chambers and the underdog Buccaneers from the Football Championship Subdivision.
The Pirates have won consecutive games only four times since 2015. They started 2-0 under Scottie Montgomery in 2016, but did not do it again until the Houston-led Pirates in late September of 2019 and again last year and this season.
Beating Marshall and then CSU made ECU 2-2 in nonconference action with a huge American Athletic Conference opening matchup looming versus Tulane for Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen at 3:30 p.m. Tulane (1-2) lost to UAB, 28-21, in New Orleans on Saturday night.
“Even in the locker room, we’re all already talking about let’s get in here tomorrow and get to work for Tulane,” ECU punter Jonn Young said Saturday night.
Cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian had a game-saving interception at Marshall. He snagged a pick-six INT versus the Buccaneers (1-2) during the third quarter for a 31-14 ECU lead, which also was the only TD of the quarter.
The Pirates have at least one interception in six straight games.
But ECU’s offense did not score after halftime. Coach Mike Houston said he also was very frustrated with nine penalties for 118 yards.
“(Post-play) penalties is something you can’t have and it’s usually self-inflicted and a lack of discipline,” he said. “That’s something that is very serious to us and we talk about it all the time. We certainly had some composure issues tonight. It comes from some selfishness and you have to decide what is more important. It’s you or the team.”
Here are answers to The Daily Reflector’s pregame questions:
1. Do backups play?
Pirate backup quarterback Mason Garcia made his season debut while the hosts were trailing. He lined up at running back and stepped up as Holton Ahlers shifted to a slot receiver spot, prompting Garcia to receive the snap at QB and run a power to his left for a 3-yard touchdown run and 17-14 ECU edge with 5:00 left in the second quarter. The Pirates stayed in the lead the rest of the way.
“It’s a red-zone play we’ve worked on for a couple weeks,” Houston said. “Mason executed it perfectly.”
Keaton Mitchell (game-high 125 rushing yards) and Rahjai Harris (eight carries, 23 yards) were the only ECU running backs to receive carries.
The Garcia TD was part of ECU’s dominant 24-0 scoring advantage in the second quarter.
“I wish we were 3-1, but 2-2 going into conference play is a good start,” Houston said. “Especially considering it is a challenging (nonconference) schedule with some of the teams we’ve played. It’s a big ball game next week.”
Ahlers finished 17-of-26 passing for 238 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
2. Chambers rushing yards?
Chambers is undoubtedly the best playmaker for CSU and he did his part (405 passing yards, 54 rushing), but the Pirates also were steady with their pressure and finished with five sacks compared to allowing one sack. Immanuel Hickman had two sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and seven total tackles.
It was the first game this year East Carolina recorded more sacks than its opponent.
Chambers was 6-of-9 passing for 42 yards on a touchdown-opening drive. The drive spanned 75 yards on 15 plays, creating a quick 7-0 lead for the visitors, and their second TD drive went 98 yards.
3. Halftime score?
ECU led 24-14. The Buccaneers missed a field goal while up 14-0, which was followed two plays later by a 74-yard burst of a run by Keaton Mitchell to the end zone for a momentum-changing sequence by the Pirates.
“It was clear as daylight and once I see daylight, it’s over with,” said Mitchell of his long run, which was helped by a strong block by tackle Justin Chase.
C.J. Johnson also had a 60-yard, catch-and-run TD in the second quarter, making it 24-14. It was his first touchdown of the season.
After a TD on each of its first two possessions, Charleston Southern didn’t score again until Chambers scrambled and trotted 8 yards into the end zone, making it 31-21 Pirates with 13:58 left in the game.
The Bucs racked up 227 yards in the first quarter to spark a surprising 14-0 edge. ECU had 19 total yards in two first-quarter possessions.
The final totals were 536 yards for the Bucs and 388 by ECU.
“That ended up being exciting and in the first half, you certainly don’t want to start the game the way we did in the first quarter,” Houston said. “I’m proud of the way the guys battled back in the second quarter and got the lead by halftime. ... Sometimes you have to get hit in the mouth before you listen, so hopefully it was a great learning lesson for us. It’s always easier to learn when you get a win because (if) you don’t win that one, that’s tough.”