East Carolina’s season of great expectations suffered a setback on Saturday when its bid to upset No. 21 South Carolina fell short, 33-23.
In a game of opportunities, the Gamecocks (1-1, 0-1 SEC) made the most of theirs, while the Pirates (1-1, 0-0 AAC) seemingly let too many slip away.
One week after allowing 680 yards in its 52-28 loss to Texas A&M, the USC defense clamped down on the Pirates’ high-powered attack, picking off ECU quarterback Shane Carden twice during a pivotal third-quarter run.
The Gamecocks turned the two turnovers into 10 points, extending their lead to 30-16 and essentially pushing the game out of reach for the Pirates.
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Carden ended the game completing 32 of his 46 pass attempts for 321 yards and 1 touchdown.
USC quarterback Dylan Thompson threw for 266 yards and a score as the Gamecocks avoided their first 0-2 start since 1999 to hand head coach Steve Spurrier his 200th Southeastern Conference win.
Heading into the contest, South Carolina’s run game was the focal point for both teams. After rushing for only 67 yards in its season opener, USC galloped for 175 yards and two TDs on 38 attempts Saturday.
Running back Mike Davis led the charge for USC as he shook off bruised ribs to rush for 101 yards and two scores.
The Pirates, who were guided by Justin Hardy’s 11 catches for 133 yards, held leads of 6-0 and 13-7 early in the first half, but failed to make the most of their scoring chances and missed out on the chance to knock off a ranked opponent for the first time since 2009.
ECU entered the red zone on its first two possession of the game but exited with a total of only six points.
The Pirates headed into the third quarter trailing 20-16, but back-to-back Carden interceptions led directly to 10 South Carolina points.
Gamecocks spur backer Sharrod Golightly pulled in the first Carden pick to hand the USC offense the ball at its own 31-yard line. Nine plays later K.J. Brent pulled in a 16-yard Thompson pass to take an 11-point lead.
Free safety T.J. Gurley got the Gamecocks’ second interception of the quarter, which led to a 26-yard field goal by Elliot Fry to extend USC’s lead to 30-16.
The Pirates began the game by scoring on their first possession thanks to an 11-play, 89-yard drive that ended with a 26-yard Warren Harvey field goal to take a 3-0 lead. East Carolina raced up the field thanks to three Hardy receptions, but the drive stalled when the senior receiver could not haul in a high Carden pass in the back of the end zone.
East Carolina let another golden opportunity slip out of its hands on its ensuing possession. An interception by cornerback Josh Hawkins gave the Pirates’ offense the ball at the USC 43-yard line, but once again Carden and Co. would have to settle for a field goal. This time it was a 35-yarder by Harvey, putting the Pirates up 6-0.
After struggling on their first two possessions, the Gamecocks finally found their rhythm and put together an 82-yard drive that ended with a 36-yard TD run by Davis.
South Carolina’s lead was short lived as the Pirates answered with a rushing touchdown of their own when freshman Marquez Grayson found the end zone from 10 yards out to wrap up a nine-play, 81-yard drive that spanned two quarters and gave ECU a 13-7 advantage.
The staunch Pirates defense of the first quarter subsided during the second as the Gamecocks reclaimed the lead thanks to 13 unanswered points. A Davis 3-yard TD run was sandwiched by two Fry field goals, with the last one putting USC up 20-13 with 1:02 left in the half.
Thanks to an assist from USC defensive tackle J.T. Surratt, the Pirates had just enough time to pick up three points and some momentum going into the break.
Surratt was called for roughing the passer when he hit Carden after he had already thrown an incomplete pass on first-and-10 at ECU’s own 38. The penalty pushed the Pirates up to the USC 47 and eventually led to a 44-yard Harvey field goal.