GREENVILLE — The East Carolina football team was 39 points better against Memphis on Saturday than it was the last time the American Athletic Conference rivals met 11 months ago.
The problem is, it still wasn’t nearly enough improvement to put the Pirates over the top for a badly needed victory.
Freshman Holton Ahlers threw for 449 yards and three touchdowns without committing a turnover in his second career start and Trevon Brown caught 10 passes for 193 yards and two scores. But Memphis countered with 639 yards of total offense and a fourth-quarter surge that turned a tie game into an all-to-familiar result, as the Tigers pulled away for a 59-41 victory at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Though the result was much closer than the 70-13 thumping the Pirates took from Memphis in the final game of last season, their competitiveness was little consolation to ECU coach Scottie Montgomery, whose seat continues to get hotter with each loss his team absorbs.
“This was a big test for us because we did remember the game last year against Memphis,” Montgomery said. “I thought there were some huge differences in our team. We’re closing the gap, but almost is one of the saddest words in the world. Almost doesn’t matter.”
Coming off an open date with an extra week to prepare, Montgomery pulled out all the stops in an effort to get the Pirates (2-6, 0-5) back into the win column for the first time in a month.
He dialed up a double-reverse flea flicker on the game’s first play that would have worked had Ahlers’ pass not got caught up in the stiff breeze and fallen short of an open Brown. Later in the opening drive, ECU tried another trick play in which Brown tried to hit Ahlers with an option pass on fourth-and-1 from the 2.
That play didn’t work either, but it did result in an interference call that set up the first of two touchdowns by running back Darius Pinnix.
Whatever momentum the Pirates got from their impressive first drive, they gave it right back by allowing Memphis star Darrell Henderson to go 71 yards for a touchdown with a screen pass less than a minute after taking the early lead.
It was a pattern that held throughout the picture-perfect fall afternoon. Every time ECU’s offense did something to build momentum and get the disappointing crowd of 21,127 into the game, the defense or special teams allowed a big play to give the edge right back to the 5-4 (2-3) Tigers.
“You can’t make mistakes,” said Ahlers, the prized freshman who also led the Pirates in rushing with 57 net yards. “It’s not offense, defense or special teams. We’re one team and today we came up short. That’s on everyone.”
And yet, while there were a few plays that the offense would like to have back — particularly a chop block call that forced ECU to settle for a 52-yard Jake Verity field goal instead of a touchdown late in the first half and a sack that stalled another promising drive late in the third — the most glaring mistakes on this day were made on the other side of the ball.
Among the most damaging was a simple slant pass that turned into a 75-yard scoring play from Brady White to Damonte Coxie on the first snap after halftime.
And yet, despite the disheartening start to the half, the Pirates bounced right back. They scored touchdowns on a short Pinnix run and a 31-yard pass from Ahlers to Brown — to tie the score at 31. But as is often the case with teams that aren’t used to winning, they couldn’t figure out a way to close out the Tigers to lose for the 24th time in 31 games over his three-year tenure.
“We moved the ball well today, scored a lot of points. A lot more than we’ve scored the past couple of weeks and felt good on offense, but we just have to keep focusing on the little things,” senior right tackle Garrett McGhin said. “One of the things people don’t realize is that the little details are what make you great.”
One of those little details turned into a game-changing play early in the fourth quarter.
With ECU down 45-34 and still plenty of time left, backup nickleback Gerard Stringer failed to hold onto a potential interception thrown right into his hands. Even without the turnover, the Pirates appeared to have gotten a stop that would have given the ball back to the offense.
However, upon a review of the play by the officials, it was determined that linebacker Ray Tillman committed a targeting infraction on a Memphis receiver, giving the Tigers a first down. Three plays later, Henderson ran 39 yards for a touchdown that effectively put the game away.
Henderson, who came into the game ranked second nationally in rushing, finished with 132 yards in the game. Nearly half of them — 64 to be exact — came in the fourth quarter.
Memphis outscored ECU 21-7 over the final 15 minutes, capping a performance that was a major step backward for a defense that has been vastly improved under first-year coordinator David Blackwell.
“We didn’t expect to come out and play like this,” said starting nickelback Devon Sutton, who finished with 11 tackles. “We know what our standard is and we know we can play 10 times better than we did today. It was a surprise because we know we’re better than what we put on film today.”