GREEENVILLE — What a difference a week makes. Seven days after getting run over by a Navy team that posted 512 rushing yards in its win over East Carolina, the Pirates defense responded to its critics by holding Houston to a season-low 28 rushing yards in its 48-28 victory on Saturday.
With the win, East Carolina (6-4, 5-1 Conference USA) clinched bowl eligibility for the sixth time in seven years.
Im very proud of our team and that it was able to bounce back, ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. We expect to be in bowls, we expect to be successful here and we expect to do things the right way.
What nobody could have expected on Saturday was that the Pirates would take a 28-0 second-quarter lead on four Shane Carden touchdown passes, and that none of them were caught by Justin Hardy.
Heading into the game, ECUs supporting cast of receivers had taken some heat for their lack of production, but like the defense, the unit temporarily silenced its naysayers.
Sophomore Danny Webster had a career day as he grabbed six passes for 46 yards and scored ECUs first three touchdowns, while junior Reese Wiggins broke his season-long scoreless slump when he caught a 9-yard touchdown pass on a fade route in the second quarter to extend the lead to 28-0.
I was glad to see those guys step up, McNeill said. They were ready to go, helmets bucked, and I thought they were pretty productive today.
Carden completed passes to nine different receivers and went 31-for-43 for 305 yards and four touchdown passes and throwing only one interception.
East Carolina flexed a balanced offensive attack that led to running back Vintavious Cooper eclipsing the 100-yard mark for the third consecutive game as he ran 33 times for 145 yards and a score.
Offensively, the Pirates had a dream outing as they ran 98 plays for 550 yards and won the time of possession battle 44:08 to15:52.
Hardy, who finished the game with five catches for 40 yards, did not play for most of the second half due to what the team called concussion-like symptoms.
Houston (4-5, 3-2 C-USA) lacked firepower as star running back Charles Sims, who ran for 33 yards on five attempts, missed the entire second half after he sustained an injury late in the second quarter.
Just as it seemed like ECU was going to coast, the Cougars scratched their way back into the game to make it interesting and scored right before the end of the first half as David Piland (22-51-1, 341, 4 TDs) found Larry McDuffey on a 10-yard out route to go into halftime trailing 28-7.
The touchdown capped off an ultra-quick seven-play, 75-yard drive that lasted 43 seconds.
Houston appeared to close the gap to 28-14 when Shane Ros caught a Piland pass and streaked 56 yards down the right sideline and lunged across the goal line as the ball came out of his hands for what was initially ruled a touchdown. However, after the officials reviewed the play it was ruled that Ros had fumbled into the end zone and ECU was awarded the ball at its own 20.
It made no difference as the Pirates fumbled on their second play, which lead to a 34-yard Isaiah Sweeney touchdown catch with 10:27 left to go in the third.
ECU responded with Warren Harvey field goals of 28 and 31 yards, with the last one pushing the lead up to 34-24 at the beginning of the fourth.
Houston made a grasp at sustaining momentum with another quick-strike touchdown drive that spanned 79 yards in 1:29 an ended with a five-yard pass to Mark Roberts to cut the Pirates lead to 13, 34-21.
However, ECU once again showed its resiliency and cooled off the Coogs with a 22-yard touchdown run by Cooper that was backed by a pick six by Ty Holmes that gave the Pirates an insurmountable 48-21 lead with 2:01 remaining in the fourth.