ECU bowl hopes end with self-destructive loss to SMU

The Pirates committed five turnovers, including a pair of interceptions for touchdowns, in a 55-31 loss that mathematically eliminated them from postseason consideration.

James Guillory—X02835
Nov 12

GREENVILLE — The East Carolina football team came into Saturday’s game against SMU fighting an uphill battle to remain in contention for bowl eligibility. For awhile Saturday, it looked as though the Pirates might be up for the challenge. But the thing about attempting such a difficult climb is that the crash back down to the bottom can be long and painful in the event of a stumble and fall. And ECU has the scars to prove it. The Pirates’ hopes for salvaging a rapidly deteriorating season came to an self-destructive end in a flurry of turnovers at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. There were five of them in all, including a pair of interceptions for touchdowns, as SMU rolled to a 55-31 victory that mathematically eliminated ECU from postseason consideration. “Pirates didn’t do a good job of not beating Pirates today,” Montgomery said, as his team fell to 3-7 in his rookie season (1-5 American Athletic Conference). Although things eventually turned ugly, the day actually started out with plenty of promise for ECU. Perhaps inspired by a pregame Military Appreciation Day ceremony that included a flyover by two F-16 fighter jets, the Pirates came roaring out of the gate with a quick defensive stop and a four-play scoring drive that ended with quarterback Philip Nelson walking into the end zone untouched for an early 7-0 lead. Although SMU eventually got its offense cranked up as well and began putting its own points on the board, the Pirates were able to keep pace with an uncharacteristic balance between the run and pass. By the time ECU’s Davis Plowman hit a 27-yard field goal to tie the score at 17 with 9:47 left in the half, it appeared as though the game had settled into a high-scoring back-and-forth shootout. Until the Pirates began to implode. The collapse began with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Ben Hicks to James Proche on a third-and-seven play that put the Mustangs (5-5, 3-3) back ahead. The Pirates’ deficit grew less than two minutes later when SMU cornerback Horace Richardson anticipated a bubble screen from Nelson to Quay Johnson, picked off the pass on the dead run and took it 70 yards in the opposite direction for a touchdown. ECU also turned the ball over on its next two possessions, the second of which led to another touchdown and a 38-17 Mustangs lead. “Sometimes that one play can change momentum,” running back James Summers said of Richardson’s pick six. “After we had that one play to change the momentum, I came in and fumbled and that gave them even more momentum. “It seemed to be a snowball effect,” center J.T. Boyd added. “Once it started, we never really got it going again.” The Pirates did at least give themselves one last opportunity to stay close and give themselves at least a fighting chance of a comeback when backup quarterback Gardner Minshew — who replaced Nelson after his second interception of the game — found Zay Jones in the end zone for a touchdown on the final play before halftime. ECU then took the second half kickoff and began driving again. But on a fourth down play from the SMU 33, Richardson intercepted a Minshew pass that tipped off Jones’ hands and took it all the way back for his second touchdown of the day. His 80-yard return sucked whatever life was left in the Pirates and their hopeful home crowd. Instead of raising the traditional red “No Quarter” flag between the third and fourth quarters, ECU might as well have sent a white flag up the pole behind the far end zone. “The turnovers is what really changed this game,” Montgomery said. “The difference to me was third downs, no ability to get them off the field (SMU went 12 for 18) and us no ability to stay on the field (ECU was 5 of 14). That combined with the turnovers made it a hard day.” About the only positive takeaway for the Pirates is that Jones had another big day catching the ball. The nation’s leading receiver caught 12 more balls for 173 yards and a touchdown. He now has 139 for the season and 380 for his career. Jones is now eight shy of passing former teammate Justin Hardy as the all-time FBS leader in career receptions. He is also 17 catches away from breaking the single-season NCAA record of 155. With two games remaining in the season, that’s about the only goal ECU has left to pursue. “It’s frustrating,” Montgomery said. “But that’s why I’m here. If you can’t handle these difficult situations, this is what coaching is all about. We didn’t think we’d be where we are right now. But we also understand we have to embrace where we are