Pirates capture Conference USA title

Staff WriterDecember 6, 2008 

The purple and gold celebration started with 63 seconds remaining, when Van Eskridge plucked another David Johnson pass out of the blue, East Carolina’s fifth interception of the afternoon.

Moments later Coach Skip Holtz got the traditional Gatorade bath. Running back Norman Whitley hopped on a table and began leading ECU’s band. Other Pirates pranced around midfield and danced in the end zone.

And why not? ECU had won the Conference USA championship Saturday - its first league title since 1976 - with a 27-24 victory over favored Tulsa. That happened primarily because of a pirating defense that created seven turnovers and Ben Hartman’s game-winning, 36-yard field goal with 1:43 remaining.

Besides hoisting the C-USA trophy, the Pirates (9-4) also received an official invitation to play in the Auto-Zone Liberty Bowl at Memphis Jan. 2, most likely against Kentucky of the Southeastern Conference.

East Carolina earned all this the hard way, by overcoming numerous injuries, by bouncing back from a mid-season slump, by continuing to believe when so many others doubted.

While there’s no doubt the Pirates are worthy champions, there is the lingering question about whether they will keep Holtz, whose name is mentioned prominently with the Syracuse job.

“Is Terry going to fire me?’’ quipped Holtz, referring to ECU athletics director Terry Holland, when asked if he would be back.

“I’m very happy at East Carolina,’’ he said, reiteriating a statement he has often made. “You never say never. It would take a very special place for me to leave. I am not looking to leave.” But other programs have to be noticing Holtz, considering where he has taken the Pirates since gaining command of the slumping program four years ago. Upon arrival, he started talking about winning championships, about changing the mindset. The football prophets didn’t think the title would come Saturday against a 10-3 Tulsa team that averaged 49.3 points, and with a quarterback, Johnson, who had thrown 42 TD passes. But the Pirates’ league-leading defense turned the Hurricane’s category-five offense into a tropical breeze (399 yards) while becoming just the second team this year to hold Tulsa under 500 yards.

It started early when Dekota Marshall intercepted Johnson’s first pass and continued when game MVP Travis Simmons ran a pick back 72 yards for a touchdown, giving ECU a quick 14-0 lead. The Pirates would add three more interceptions -- two by Eskridge and one by Leon Best -- and recover two fumbles. “It’s unbelievable we would do this; we beat ourselves,’’ lamented Tulsa coach Todd Graham. “But give East Carolina credit. They created those turnovers.” “[Our] defense won that championship,’’ said Holtz, who watched his front four pressure Johnson and his backs play like wild bandits. “The secondary -- Eskridge, Best, Simmons, Marshall and J.J. Millbrook -- did a phenomenal job disguising [coverage] and mixing things up.” Best also delivered a fumble-causing hit on Tulsa’s Jesse Meyers that almost created a tremor on the turf of Chapman Stadium, where 22,704 mostly Hurricane fans remained raucous until the final minute. Tulsa ran an incredible 97 plays, and despite the ‘Cane’s offensive missteps, tied the game 24-24 with 8:56 remaining. Meanwhile, East Carolina had only shown offensive prowess just occasionally: On an 81-yard opening drive culminated by a Patrick Pinkeny-to-Kevin Guidry pass and a 69-yard scoring sprint by Whitley in the third, which put ECU ahead 24-17. So Holtz had a “heart-to-heart” talk with Pinkney before the Pirates game-clinching, 53-yard march. The ECU quarterback, after starting the day 4-for-4 passing, completed just 6 of his last 18 throws as the attack sputtered. “[Coach] said I had to put the game on my shoulders, do my job,’’ Pinkney recalled. “I accepted that. We’ve been through a lot. No matter how the game goes, we don’t give up.” The result was an efficient, methodical march that included a fourth-down conversion run from ECU’s 37-yard line by Brandon Simmons.

Stymied at the Tulsa 19, Hartman -- who had missed his previous field goal attempt from 39 yards -- came in to attempt another game winner. He booted the ball straight, then watched it curve inside the left upright. “I put the [miss] past me; I just try to keep the same mental makeup,’’ explained the unflappable Hartman, who holds the ECU single-season record with 19 field goals. Tulsa came swirling back. But then Eskridge came up with the interception, taking the last gust and all of the remaining gusto out of the Hurricane. The Pirates had found a way to win another close one. "This team has more heart, has faced more adversity, and has hung together when not a lot of people believed in them,'' said Holtz, who enjoyed the post-game celebration of bear hugs, hoisting a championship trophy, and ringing the Liberty Bowl bell.

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