East Carolina’s defense churned out opportunity after opportunity for the Pirates on Saturday, but a continually lackluster ECU offense could not use those chances to create the advantage they should have.
A defensive unit laden with freshmen and sophomores on the front end stood tall throughout most of a disappointing 20-17 loss, giving the offense an interception, a pair of fumbles and a slew of punts in the opening half alone.
In fact, the visiting Gamecocks scored their first and only offensive touchdown of the game with less than a minute left in the third quarter.
“I think No. 1, it shows what our kids are capable of,” ECU coach Mike Houston said. “I love the way we competed, I love the way we don’t quit. We fight.”
Houston pointed to a key first half play when safety Juan Powell and cornerback Nolan Johnson both converged on South Carolina receiver Josh Vann, who snared a pass right at the goal line for a would-be touchdown. Instead, the double impact of the two ECU defenders hitting him caused a fumble that bounced out the back of the end zone for a touchback and Pirate possession of the ball.
“Everybody thought it was going to be a touchdown, and we force the fumble and the touchback right there. That’s what we’ve preached since the day I got here,” Houston said. “We didn’t convert (the opportunities) to as many points as we wanted, but you’re playing a really good SEC defense.”
The only South Carolina points in the first two quarters came on a critical pick-6 interception thrown by ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers with one minute remaining before halftime, creating a 14-7 Pirate lead at the half.
The ECU ‘D’ started quickly in the game when, already armed with a 7-0 lead, Warren Saba picked off South Carolina passer Zeb Noland on the opening drive for the visitors. The Pirates then forced consecutive punts and then back-to-back fumbles to end the opening quarter.
In the second, the Pirates forced another fumble that squirted loose and into the waiting hands of D.J. Ford. That turnover gave ECU the ball on the South Carolina 13, and Ahlers ultimately ran in it from the 3 for a 14-0 Pirate edge.
A key combined sack by veteran ECU linebackers Xavier Smith and Bruce Bivens later in the second put the Pirate offense back in control, but Ahlers’ interception gave the Gamecocks the momentum heading into the third quarter.
Despite the outcome — South Carolina forged ties of 14-14 and 17-17 in the second half before kicking a game-winning field goal as time expired — the success in run-stopping, turnover creation and quarterback pressure could have a lasting effect.
“I don’t that there was a lack of confidence, but our confidence has taken a step up,” said Ford, who finished with six tackles. “Our guys realize that we can play with anyone. That was a big SEC offensive line and we more than held our own.”