Much like there was no denying Tulsa on Saturday, there was no denying the sour taste East Carolina’s football team was left with Saturday to take into an important offseason.
Similar to when South Florida visited Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Oct. 26 and produced an easy win, Tulsa dismantled the Pirates on Saturday in American Athletic Conference season-ending action at a mostly-empty Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, a 49-24 Golden Hurricane victory that left ECU with a 4-8 record in Mike Houston’s first season in Greenville.
Houston was hired Dec. 3 of last year and progressed the Pirates (4-8, 1-7 American) past the important 3-9 barrier, but Tulsa pulled away from ECU with ease after the Pirates scored first with a Jake Verity field goal with 1:42 remaining in the opening quarter.
Tulsa immediately responded with 21 unanswered points before halftime and took a 28-3 advantage early in the third quarter. The Golden Hurricane’s sixth touchdown came during the first minute of the fourth quarter, creating a 42-10 deficit on senior day for rebuilding ECU.
“We have created expectations to be competitive and go out there and win these ball games, and we should have those expectations, and obviously we have to take a look and I have to take a look at everything we have done,” Houston said of the season-ending disappointment. “Just because it worked for us some other place doesn’t mean that is what we need to do here. I do think we accomplished a lot and grew so much, but it’s obvious that we have to continue to still develop as players and with what we are doing as coaches.”
Houston came to ECU from James Madison and with an 80-25 career record.
Tulsa (4-8, 2-6) takes a thorough victory into its offseason, yet optimism remained in the home locker room Saturday late afternoon in reflecting on this ECU season.
Senior starters for the Pirates, who went 3-9 each of the last three years, were linemen Branden Pena, Fernando Frye, Alex Turner, Jalen Price and Kendall Futrell joined by cornerback Colby Gore. In all, 16 players were honored before the overcast noon kickoff.
“Coach Houston has done a good job coming in here and honestly cleaning a lot of stuff up,” Turner said. “When I came in as a freshman in coach (Scottie) Montgomery’s first recruiting class, there was a lot of issues with the program already and I think over the years it also has kind of built up. ... We have worked differently than we ever have, and the program is going to turn around. I’m glad I was able to be a senior this year and have some part in that.”
Tulsa (4-8, 2-6), which beat UCF on Nov. 8 to stop a four-game losing streak, found various mismatches and advantageous spots to be aggressive against a struggling Pirate secondary to smoothly build a 21-3 lead by halftime.
After halftime, Tank Robinson stepped up for ECU’s defense with a leaping interception on the first possession of the third quarter, but the next sequence of plays was a microcosm of the opportunistic play by the Golden Hurricane to pull away from ECU.
ECU slot receiver Jsi Hatfield looked to convert a double-pass after a lateral, and he smartly pulled the ball down to run instead of passing, but as he reversed field, the ball was stripped by Tulsa’s Jaxon Player and recovered by Tulsa’s Reggie Robinson and returned 21 yards to the Pirate 21-yard line. TK Wilkerson converted a rushing touchdown to make it 28-3.
It was 35-10 Tulsa going into the fourth quarter.
“We had some momentum (after Robinson’s interception) and had a take-a-shot play called, and a freshman was an integral player right there in he made a mistake with the ball with fundamentals and put it on the ground,” Houston said of Hatfield’s fumble. “Obviously that was a situation where we wanted to be very aggressive. Coming out of the half we got the stop when you get the turnover.”
Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith was 17-for-23 for 275 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. He finished 21-for-30 with 331 passing yards and five touchdowns and suffered one sack, Futrell’s 11th of his senior year.
Smith’s first TD was a 66-yarder to Sam Crawford to negate a 3-0 ECU lead late in the first quarter.
“When you have 10 guys doing a great job and one guy makes a mistake, you give up a big play,” Houston said. “That is what football is. We gave up a couple big plays and I thought we lost a lot of steam in our sails.”
Holton Ahlers was 27-of-48 passing for 308 yards and three touchdowns. He also was ECU’s leading rusher with 35 yards on six carries, besting starting running back Darius Pinnix (14 carries, 27 yards).
Shamari Brooks had 202 ground yards for Tulsa, which finished with a 669-383 advantage in total yards.
“They are a very physical team and a very explosive team and certainly they made the plays that they had to in order to win the ball game today,” Houston said. “At the end of the day, that is what we didn’t do. We made too many mistakes.”
Blake Proehl caught two of Ahlers’ touchdown passes. C.J. Johnson had 141 receiving yards and the other Pirate TD.
Verity made a 51-yard field goal for his season-long kick, giving East Carolina its early 3-0 edge. Tulsa had the biggest play of the opening quarter, however, taking advantage of a busted coverage behind cornerback Colby Gore and away from chasing safety Daniel Charles for a 66-yard TD reception by Crawford and a 7-3 advantage with 1:06 left in the quarter.
The Golden Hurricane converted a third-and-12 pass to Keylon Stokes, then Smith threw a 29-yard toss to Stokes in the end zone to make it 14-3 and give Tulsa its first double-digit lead with 12:09 until halftime.
Brooks had 81 yards in the first quarter, most coming on a 64-yard dash on the visitors’ second play from scrimmage. They made it into the red zone on that drive, but Price rushed into the backfield on fourth down for an ECU stop and turnover on downs.
The Hurricane out-gained ECU, 324-195, during the rest of the first half after that fourth-down stop.
ECU’s likely most disappointing game of the year came one week after winning 31-24 at lowly Connecticut.
“Is it in better shape than it was a year ago? Yes, and anybody who doesn’t see that or doesn’t say that obviously isn’t paying a whole lot of attention,” Houston said of the state of the team. “At the same time, are we where we want to be? Not even close. We have very high expectations for East Carolina football. This is a great place, and I think that we can get there. We will get there, and the coaches will immediately begin the recruiting trail.”