EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — The East Carolina football team got off to a strong start for the second straight week. This time, it kept the momentum going long enough to produce a winning finish.
Quarterback Thomas Sirk threw for a career-high 426 yards and teamed up with wide receiver Davon Grayson for three touchdowns as the Pirates built a 20-point lead early in the second half against UConn on Sunday.
They then survived a furious comeback by the Huskies to hold on for their first win of the season — a 41-38 victory sealed when Michael Tarbutt’s 33-yard field goal sailed wide right with six seconds remaining.
“We’re a lot tougher than people think,” ECU coach Scottie Montgomery told ECUPirates.com. “We’re undaunted, we’re resilient. We’ve got a good football team bouncing back. You learn to be tough when you’re a Pirate. We’ve just got to start stacking some victories now.”
ECU got off to a blazing start in its rescheduled American Athletic Conference opener, which was moved from its original Nov. 4 date because of Hurricane Irma, by scoring on its first five possessions of the game.
With Sirk completing his first 11 passes, including touchdowns of 17 and 24 yards to Grayson, the Pirates (1-3, 1-0 AAC) jumped out to a 27-7 advantage.
It was an even bigger lead than the 17-7 cushion ECU enjoyed a week earlier after the first quarter against Virginia Tech. The Hokies scored the next 57 points in that game to pull away for a lopsided victory.
Saturday, however, the Pirates showed more resilience by answering back when the opposition scored.
At least for a while.
A 75-yard pass from Sirk to Grayson on the first play of the second half offset a touchdown by the Huskies just before halftime. Then after UConn struck again on the second of three scoring passes by former NC State quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, Hussein Howe going the points right back with a 14-yard run for his first career touchdown.
At that point, leading 41-21 with 11 minutes left in the third quarter, the Pirates went into survival mode.
UConn (1-2, 0-1) cut the ECU lead with three unanswered scores, including a 79-yard strike from Shirreffs to Arkeel Newsome with 5:48 left that got the Huskies back to within three. After a Pirates punt, UConn drove from its own 9 to the ECU 15 on a possession aided by a marginal unnecessary roughness penalty on linebacker Cannon Gibbs.
But the comeback fell short when Tarbutt missed his attempt to tie the game and force overtime.
“It was really stressful there at the end,” Montgomery said. “But you’ve got to get a tough one before you can get an easy one.”
The victory, regardless of how it was earned, ended a seven-game losing streak for the Pirates, dating back to its home game against UConn last season. It was also the first road victory of Montgomery’s two-year tenure.
Sirk, the Duke graduate transfer, completed 30 of his 39 passes in his first game back from a concussion that forced him to miss last week’s loss to Virginia Tech. Grayson also set career highs with his 11 catches while Trevon Brown added nine receptions. Grayson’s 223 yards were the third most in school history.
Defensively, the Pirates gave up 596 yards to the Huskies — the fewest it has allowed in any of its four games this season.
Now atop the AAC East standings, ECU returns home next week to take on league preseason favorite South Florida with a renewed jolt of confidence.
“After our first three games we said we’re going to focus on conference play, and we have another big one next week,” Sirk said. “So, we look forward to that.”