GREENVILLE — Mike Houston didn’t give a fiery halftime speech Thursday, although he could easily have done that as self-destructive as his East Carolina football team was over the first two quarters against South Florida.
Instead of peeling the paint off the locker room walls, he took a kinder, gentler approach.
And it paid off in a big way.
The Pirates were a different team in the second half, roaring from behind for a 29-14 victory on a soggy night at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Holton Ahlers threw for a touchdown, Keaton Mitchell ran for one and the defense intercepted three passes, including a pick six by Malik Flemming to produce a second-half blitz that kept ECU in contention for its first bowl bid in seven seasons.
“The kids kept their composure at halftime,” Houston said of his team’s demeanor after losing two fumbles, missing an extra point and failing to score from the 1-yard line during the opening 30 minutes.
“Really, South Florida didn’t stop us in the first half. We stopped ourselves. We were the ones making the mistakes, so I just calmed them down and (told them) to stick to what they were doing.”
Trailing by eight at halftime, the Pirates (4-4, 2-2 American Athletic Conference) immediately shifted the momentum into their favor when Tyler Snead — who’d fumbled earlier — returned the third quarter kickoff 43 yards to near midfield.
That set up an 11-play drive that ended with Ahlers dropping a perfectly placed 17-yard pass into the hands of Audie Omotosho in the corner of the end zone.
“The way we responded in the third quarter was really impressive because all the momentum was against us at halftime,” Houston said. “Any coach will tell you momentum is one of the biggest variables there is. When you’ve got the momentum, you feel like you’re riding a wave ,and when it’s against you, it’s almost suffocating.”
Once ECU regained the momentum, it never let it go.
On its second possession of the half, it drove from inside its own 1 to the USF 21 before kicker Owen Daffer missed a field goal. But things still turned out well when on the first play after the exchange, Flemming cut in front of Bulls receiver Demarcus Gregory for an interception that he returned 31 yards for the go-ahead score.
“That was a game-changer,” said freshman cornerback Teagan Wilk, who also had an interception later in the game.
Mitchell then provided some much needed separation by finishing off another long drive, this one 10 plays and 80 yards, with a 25-yard run up the middle early in the fourth quarter. He finished the game with 79 yards on 16 carries while his running mate Rahjai Harris rushed for exactly 100 yards on 22 attempts — his fourth career game in triple digits.
Ahlers, despite the difficult conditions, completed 21 of 35 passes for 220 yards through the air to go with 78 yards on the ground. Daffer finished the scoring with a 37-yard field goal set up by Shawn Dourseau interception.
In addition to the three interceptions, the ECU defense held the Bulls (2-6, 1-3) scoreless in the second half.
“When you play from behind, it shows your true identity,” said Wilk, who also forced a fumble and tied for team-high honors with five tackles. “I feel like as a group, it just shows you that we stay together and don’t really panic.”
The Pirates had plenty of opportunities to panic during a first half in which everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong after Harris opened the scoring on a 13-yard run on the opening play of the second quarter.
Things immediately began going downhill when Daffer missed the extra point.
First, USF answered back with a touchdown of its own on a 24-yard run by Jaren Mangham on a fourth-and-1 play. The extra point gave the Bulls a 7-6 lead.
Then on the ensuing kickoff, Snead gave the ball right back to USF by losing a fumble at his own 25. Three plays and 25 seconds of elapsed time later, the visitors got back into the end zone when surprise starting quarterback Katravis Marsh hit Xavier Weaver with a 13-yard pass.
But the Pirates weren’t finished with their self-destructive ways.
Taking over at their own 25 with 8:12 remaining, they methodically drove the length of the field on an assortment of Ahlers passes and runs by Harris and Mitchell.
But after Ahlers was ruled down just inches from the goal line on a third down run — despite appearing to get in on replay — the 16-play drive yielded nothing when the ECU quarterback fumbled the snap attempting a fourth down sneak.
“That was a crappy way to end the half, but we just have to learn from it and grow from it,” Ahlers said. “But it did show a lot about our character coming out and starting the second half like we did.”