GREENVILLE — East Carolina opened Saturday's contest with an inspiring scoring drive, but before long Southern Miss silenced the hopeful crowd at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with its own electrifying brand of football.
Southern Miss (8-1, 3-1 C-USA) scored a season-high first half points, twice finding the end zone on returned interceptions, once on a returned punt, once on a returned block punt, once on a touchdown pass and once on a field goal. By the time they were done, the Golden Eagles had snapped the Pirates three-game winning streak and collected an impressive 48-28 victory before a disappointed home crowd of 50,345.
It was very freaky, ECU sophomore wide receiver Reese Wiggins said. They scored three times without the defense touching the field.
Thats never a good sign and the Pirates, who gained 420 total offensive yards, surrendered 299 yards and the most first-half points since yielding 42 points to West Virginia in 2004.
After tough non-conference losses to No. 10 South Carolina, No. 12 Virginia Tech and North Carolina earlier this season, the Pirates entered this game tied with Southern Miss in Conference USAs eastern division and had an opportunity to take a one-game lead with three regular-season games remaining.
Instead the Pirates dropped to 4-5 overall and 3-2 in the conference, their quest of reaching the leagues championship game dampened though not dashed. They also need two wins to become bowl eligible.
Its very frustrating, ECU senior quarterback Dominique Davis said. But you have to keep playing.
ECU cut their opponents lead to 38-21 with an 11-play, 40-yard drive midway through the third quarter. Davis who completed 22 of 36 pass attempts for 262 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions found receiver Justin Hardy on a three-yard pass play, but that and a fourth-quarter touchdown run wasnt enough.
We dug ourselves in a whole and couldnt get back out, said Davis, who was sacked five times and watched his team implode in the first half.
The Pirates opened the game with a flurry of quick-strike plays.
On the second play of the game, Davis dumped a screen pass to Wiggins, who cut inside then up the sideline for a 72 yard touchdown. The Pirates needed just 52 seconds to take a 7-0 lead.
The Pirates' defense then forced the Eagles to three-and-out and Davis and the offense took over. Mixing hard rushes and precise passes over the middle, they marched 66 yards to their opponent's 8.
But then the game changed.
Scanning the end zone for a receiver, Davis attempted a pass to senior receiver Joe Womack that popped off his pads and fell into the hands of Southern Miss linebacker Jamie Collins, who raced 97 yards for an interception returned for a touchdown.
On ECU's next possession, the Pirates punted after three unsuccessful downs. Southern Miss running back Tracy Lampley confounded matters on the next play, returning a punt 60 yards for a touchdown. The Eagles pulled ahead 14-7.
East Carolina's first quarter woes continued on its next possession. Forced to fourth and 11 from the 39, the Pirates elected to punt but not without difficulty.
Pirates specialist Phil McNaughton's rugby style punt was blocked by Hunt and recovered by Emmanuel Johnson, who jogged into the end zone for a 15 yard touchdown and a 21-7 lead for the Eagles with 5:08 remaining in first quarter.
We were beating ourselves, ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. I have to get that corrected.
Note The Pirates were without senior receiver Lance Lewis, who injured his right foot earlier this week.