ECU takes frustration out on UConn with dominating 41-3 win

After suffering through a prolonged stretch in which it seemed as though everything that could possibly go wrong did go wrong, the Pirates finally experienced a game in which virtually everything -- literally -- went their way

James Guillory—USA TODAY Sports
East Carolina Pirates wide receiver Zay Jones (7) catches the ball defended by Connecticut Huskies defensive back Jamar Summers (21) during the first quarter at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville

GREENVILLE — History has a way of repeating itself when you’re in a rut. After five straight losses, that rut was starting to look more like one of those giant sinkholes left behind by Hurricane Matthew for the East Carolina football team. So instead of kicking a field goal with his team facing a fourth-and-goal situation from the 2-yard line Saturday, something he’d done in each of the past two games, coach Scottie Montgomery decided to change things up and go for the touchdown. The gamble paid off with a scoring pass from Philip Nelson to James Summers. And that was only the start. The Pirates let off a month-and-a-half worth of pent-up frustration with a dominant performance in all three phases of the game on the way to a 41-3 drubbing of UConn at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The long-overdue victory was ECU’s 11th straight on Homecoming and was its the first win of any kind since beating NCState all the way back on Sept. 10. “It gets to a point where you’re going to use four downs to try to get this thing going in the right direction,” Montgomery said. “That was the time to do it. We could easily have sent (the field goal team) out there and gotten three, but I wanted to set a tempo and a mindset with our football club — not in love, but in trust that they would go out there and do it.” The Pirates didn’t let their coach down. “That first drive was huge for us,” Nelson said. “To be able to put it in right away got us going.” After suffering through a prolonged stretch in which it seemed as though everything that could possibly go wrong did go wrong, ECU (3-5, 1-3 American Athletic Conference) finally experienced a game in which virtually everything — literally — went its way. A defense that had mustered only one sack the entire season tackled Huskies’ quarterback Bryant Shirreffs behind the line four times for a total of 18 yards in losses. A team that ranked 125th out of 128 FBS teams with a turnover margin of minus-12 coming into the game took the ball away three times without coughing it up. And an offense that was ranked dead last in the AAC in red zone efficiency at just 64.5 percent scored points on all five trips it made inside the 20 against a team that led the conference in red zone defense. ECU even scored touchdowns on two trick plays, the first in which wide receiver Zay Jones threw back to Nelson for a 2-yard score just before halftime and another in which running back — and sometime quarterback — James Summers threw a 31-yard strike to Jimmy Williams. It was one of those games coaches and players dream about. And the Pirates needed in the worst way imaginable. “Winning is not easy, we know that. But we put in the work this week,” said Nelson, fully healthy for the first time in several weeks, after completing 29 of his 41 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. “We had a great players only team meeting. We just came out and wanted to have fun. In order to have fun, we needed to execute.” As important as ECU’s first drive was, the most pivotal possession of the afternoon was the one that came in the final three minutes of the opening half. Despite outplaying UConn by a considerable margin, the Pirates’ lead was only 7-3 headed toward the midway point in the game. They finally achieved some separation by moving 75 yards on 12 plays, getting into the end zone on Jones’ pass to Nelson with 45 seconds remaining in the half. They added a field goal on their opening drive of the third quarter and didn’t let up — building enough of a lead that most of its starters were able to watch the final 15 minutes from the sideline. That includes Jones, who added to his nation’s leading reception total by catching 19 passes for 185 yards and a score. The senior receiver has 114 catches for 1,094 yards through the first eight games this season. His career total of 355 receptions is the second most in FBS history, behind only former teammate Justin Hardy’s 387. “I thought our great players played great today,” Montgomery said. In fact, virtually everyone that got into the game wearing purple on Saturday played well. That includes running back Anthony Scott, who after getting benched for excessive fumbles, got into the game, held onto the ball and made it into the end zone for what would have been a touchdown had it not been nullified by a penalty. “This was a long time coming,” said senior linebacker Cam White. “It was do-or-die at this point. We need to win these games out and salvage the season.”