In the final round of East Carolina’s heavyweight bout with No. 17 Virginia Tech on Saturday, the Pirates found themselves with their back pressed firmly against the ropes as the Hokies landed a flurry of blows.
The last one appeared to be knockout punch. The Pirates, who lead 21-7 at halftime, where reeling in the second half, mired in the midst of a scoring drought that spanned nearly three quarters and 10 possessions as Virginia Tech wiped out a 14-point, second-half deficit.
The Hokies, who seemed to get stronger as the game wore on, landed a haymaker when Michael Brewer connected with a wide-open Cam Phillips for an 18-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at 21 with 1 minute, 20 seconds left.
The crowd of 63,267 at Lane Stadium/Worsham Field smelled blood as history seemed destined to repeat itself. Ruffin McNeill had faced Virginia Tech three times and never trailed at halftime but had never beaten the Hokies in his first four years as East Carolina’s coach.
Never miss a local story.
Yet somehow the Pirates managed to stay upright. They sprung off the ropes like Muhammad Ali in his prime and retaliated with a three-play, 65-yard touchdown drive to KO Virginia Tech with 16 seconds remaining.
Quarterback Shane Carden led his team to the 1, where he received the snap and bounced to his left to cement a 28-21 victory.
Carden, who in last year’s clash with Virginia Tech was intercepted three times and held to 158 yards, bucked the Pirates recent trend of folding against the Hokies with a 427-yard, three-touchdown performance.
The victory spoke volumes about East Carolina’s resolve.
“I think it goes back to belief in the commitment to the team,” McNeill said. “If you believe, you don’t waver when it goes bad.”
The touchdown didn’t just rescue East Carolina (2-1), it resuscitated the Pirates’ hopes of playing in a major bowl.
Under the new College Football Playoff structure, one team from the Group of Five (American Athletic, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt) will be picked by a selection committee to play in one of six major bowls.
Coming off a 33-23 road loss to then-ranked No. 21 South Carolina, a second defeat at the hands of a Power Five opponent surely would have dropped the Pirates from big-time bowl consideration.
“I’m proud of our team and staff,” McNeill said. “We had a tough loss at South Carolina. Coming back having to play another power away in a hostile venue was tough, and I’m proud of our kids because we’ve been talking about the commitment since Day One.
“To be able to see it grow in front of you is a beautiful thing to watch. That was a great win for our players.”
The victory against a No. 17 Virginia Tech (2-1) team that just a week earlier beat then-No. 8 Ohio State 35-21, was big. Couple that with ECU playing statistically even with South Carolina, which beat No. 6 Georgia 38-35 Saturday, and that not only keeps the Pirates’ lofty goals alive, but should give them added momentum as they prepare to face in-state rival North Carolina (2-0).
A victory vs. the Tar Heels would propel ECU forward into its first AAC game, which will come Oct. 4 at home against Southern Methodist.