EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Win No. 4. East Carolina football followers should have known it wouldn’t be easy.
ECU players and coaches have talked about the possibility of a fourth win since late September, and it became a reality Saturday at Rentschler Field where the Pirates beat lowly Connecticut as expected, 31-24, for ECU to stop a five-game losing streak and officially clinch its best record since 2015.
ECU (4-7, 1-6 American Athletic Conference) won in its only game this year it was favored against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent, but it also required the visitors to break a fourth-quarter tie with a 68-yard, game-winning drive capped by quarterback Holton Ahlers’ 2-yard power run into the end zone for a 31-24 cushion with 3:28 remaining. UConn (2-9, 0-7) then drove down the field, and its fourth-down pass was intercepted by senior Colby Gore at the 1-yard line with 1 second remaining.
“A lot of joy, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt that ecstatic before,” Gore said.
The Pirates and first-year coach Mike Houston have future aspirations of winning seasons and bowl games, but for now, there was importance in creating distance from the worrisome 3-9 record produced by the Pirates each of the last three years.
“Don’t underestimate what this means,” Houston said. “There is no more 3-9. ... The change in those kids from last December to right now is a 180. You don’t recognize it. There are positive attitudes and unity and they care about each other.
“They try to do things right. It is such a good locker room right now and we worked so hard to get there, but if we went 3-9 again, it makes people question.”
ECU stopped its 10-game AAC road losing streak while handing the Huskies their 18th straight league defeat.
One game remains for ECU to try to match its 5-7 mark from 2015, this Saturday versus Tulsa at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The Pirates can’t go to a bowl game, but they have a strong desire to win their final two games of a critical rebuilding campaign.
“Four is so significant, and five would be even better,” Houston said. “That is the the last thing we said in (the locker room) is we have to go get No. 5.”
Saturday’s start, and parts of the second half, were far from ideal for ECU.
UConn’s defense got an initial stop in the game and then stung the Pirates for a play-action touchdown pass. Receiver Cam Ross beat safety Daniel Charles down the middle of the field and easily converted a 40-yard touchdown for a 7-0 lead for the hosts on their first play from scrimmage.
ECU turned to the big-play Ahlers-to-C.J. Johnson connection later in the first to help create a 10-7 Pirate lead at the end of the quarter. Ahlers’ 17-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zech Byrd with 1:49 remaining in the first half made it 17-7.
The Pirates remained in front until another deep pass to Ross, against Charles again, went for a 94-yard touchdown to create a 24-24 tie with 9:28 left in the game. Ross finished with eight catches for 169 yards and two TDs, similar to the prowess displayed by ECU’s Tyler Snead with 16 catches for 126 yards.
East Carolina’s drive late in the first quarter featured passes to Johnson spanning 43 and 26 yards, putting starting and previously injured running back Darius Pinnix in position for a 3-yard leaping touchdown to make it 10-7. It was Pinnix’s first action since Week 2 of the season.
Pinnix also plunged in a 1-yard score, making it 24-14 ECU at the 10:31 mark of the third quarter, as part of his 27 rushes for 105 yards.
“I’ve been missing being out there with my brothers,” Pinnix said. “Whatever the team needs. I’ll carry it 100 or just one time.”
Houston added that Pinnix’s physical presence was significant for his team. Ahlers was ECU’s second-leading rusher with 22 yards to complement his passing of 34-for-50 for 374 yards, one TD and two interceptions.
“I don’t know if we envisioned (27 carries for Pinnix), but he was like a kid on Christmas morning all week,” Houston said. “He was so giddy. I didn’t know if he might be dead tired by halftime and not be able to go, but he loves playing the game. He’s been really frustrated with having to sit out.”
Former starting left guard Cortez Herrin also returned from injury. He did not start and played sparingly.
Johnson finished with four catches for 85 yards.
UConn freshman QB Jack Zergiotis was 21-of-37 for 418 yards, three touchdowns and two INTs. Tank Robinson had the Pirates’ other interception during the final minute of the first half at the Pirate 3-yard line with his team leading 17-7.
Zergiotis came in averaging 139.2 passing yards per outing.
Jake Verity missed a 46-yard field goal in the third quarter to stop his school-record streak of 13 straight made kicks. He made a 26-yarder during the opening quarter to cut the Huskies’ early edge to 7-3.
Verity’s successful FG started a run of 17 straight points by the Pirates during the opening half.
“They have been through a lot, and God knows that I have beat it in their head that we are not going to be 3-9,” Houston said. “We are not going to be.”
As part of a Pirate secondary that struggled at times and helped the Huskies to total 527 total yards compared to ECU’s 509, Gore ensured the visitors won in the end.
“Colby made a great play and I thought the quarterback panicked a little bit,” Houston said. “There was so much going on with Colby when I took the job and a tough deal, but he is a good young man. ... He had to work through some stuff, but he has been fantastic with us since we got here. I just hugged him and told him how proud I was of him.
“He’s had adversity and he’s one of those seniors who has taken a lot of blame for some of the struggles over the years. There have been people who have been pretty critical of him, and that’s not easy for a young man his age, and it’s different when you’re an old guy like me who can take a little more of the heat, but for him to have that success right there means a lot.”