GREENVILLE — As bad as things have been going for East Carolina’s defense this season, the last thing it needed was for its offense to put it in a bad spot right out of the gate Saturday.
But that’s what happened.
A fumble on the Pirates’ second play from scrimmage gave Brigham Young a short field with which to work and despite being the next-to-worst offense in the FBS, at least statistically, the Cougars turned the early break into a quick touchdown.
It was the kind of start that could demoralize a unit that came into the game ranked dead last nationally in both scoring and total defense. Instead, it became a rallying point.
Led by freshman Aaron Ramseur and senior Jordan Williams, who both notched double-digit tackles, ECU’s much-maligned defense rose to the occasion by shutting BYU down until long after the game was decided as the Pirates celebrated homecoming with a 33-17 victory at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Kicker Jake Verity tied a school record by kicking four field goals and backup quarterback Gardner Minshew came off the bench for injured starter Thomas Sirk and threw two second half touchdown passes to lead ECU to its first win against anyone other than UConn since beating NC State in the second game of last season.
The badly needed win culminated a tumultuous week that began with athletic director Jeff Compher admonishing his school’s fans by telling them to “fight with us, not against us” in an open letter and ended with coach Scottie Montgomery and his players running joyously off the field for only the second time in eight games.
“It’s like a load off our shoulders just to give Pirate Nation a feeling of excitement and something to brag about,” sophomore cornerback Colby Gore said. “I always try to go to my teammates, no matter who it is or what happens, and say ‘let’s keep our head in the game.’”
For a change, that’s exactly what ECU did this time.
Learning from the mistakes made in a similar situation against Temple three weeks earlier, when they fell apart at the first sign of adversity by allowing 24 second quarter points, the Pirates tightened up to force punts on BYU’s next two possessions.
Although they allowed a field goal on the final play of the half to go into the break tied at 10, the three points represented something of a victory for them after keeping the Cougars out of the end zone on two plays from inside the 10.
Montgomery, feeling his team’s confidence growing, then issued it a challenge in the locker room before coming out to begin the second half.
“I said what we need to do is get points, get a stop and get points again and we will have command of the game,” Montgomery said. “That’s exactly what happened.”
The Pirates (2-6) actually scored on their first three possessions of the second half. But even then, they were hardly in command, because instead of scoring touchdowns, all three of the scores were Verity field goals.
But even then, up 19-10 as the “No Quarter” flag was raised heading into the final 15 minutes, they were still in a better position than they’ve been in all but one previous game this season.
“I was upset once we had two or three field goals, because I really thought we played pretty good between the 30s,” Montgomery said. “It was hard, but the coach in me was going to continue to take those three points as many as we could because of the way our defense was playing.”
Something had to give in a game that pitted an ECU defense that came in allowing an average of 50 points and 600 yards against a BYU offense that was mustering only 11.4 points points per game.
On this night, it was the Pirates defense that won the battle. Not only did it hold the Cougars to a modest 421 total yards, it also produced two sacks, a goal line stand and an interception by linebacker Cannon Gibbs.
The offense finally added the coup de grace when after Sirk went down with an injured throwing elbow, Minshew came in and threw touchdown passes of 26 and nine yards to Trevon Brown and Quay Johnson.
“We just wanted to do our part on offense,” said Minshew, who completed six of his nine passes for 121 yards and the two scores. “Our defense played a heck of a game. They created turnovers, got some big stops and were just flying around, playing fearless.
“So much stuff has been said about them, to see them to go out and play that was so much fun to see. I was so happy for those guys.”
They felt pretty good about themselves, too.
“To be a great defense, you’ve got to have amnesia,” Williams said. “You’ve got to forget about all the other plays. You just forget about everything and play as hard as you can.
“You sacrifice your body to go out with your friends and teammates. It’s great at the end to get a win.”