With the nation watching, No. 18 East Carolina didn’t exactly put its best foot forward, but somehow it managed to get past Connecticut, 31-21, Thursday night.
The Pirates (6-1, 3-0 American Athletic) committed 11 penalties for 105 yards and surrendered three touchdowns to a team that scored only six touchdowns all season. But they outscored UConn (1-6, 0-4) 10-0 in the fourth quarter to lock up bowl eligibility for the eighth time in the past nine seasons.
ECU quarterback Shane Carden threw a career-high 64 times and completed 38 of them for 445 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted once.
Pirates wide receiver Justin Hardy caught 14 of those passes for 186 yards and a score, while Cam Worthy had seven receptions for 138 yards.
East Carolina, which never trailed the Huskies, held a 14-7 lead at halftime and went into the fourth quarter tied at 21. The Pirates took a 24-21 lead when Warren Harvey, who missed a 33-yard field goal attempt in the second, converted a 31-yarder with 6 minutes, 15 seconds left in the fourth to put ECU up for good.
After another fourth-quarter stop by the East Carolina defense, the Pirates pieced together a 10-play, 76-yard drive that ended with Breon Allen juking his way for a nine-yard TD run with 1:25 remaining in the game to secure the lead and the Pirates best start since 1999.
UConn pulled even with the Pirates on its first possession of the third quarter when Thomas Noel grabbed a 32-yard TD pass from quarterback Chandler Whitmer to put the finishing touches on a six-play, 75-yard drive. Whitmer finished 18 for 30 for 303 yards passing with two TDs and an interception.
ECU reclaimed the lead on the ensuing drive as the Pirates opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 on the 1-yard line and scored on a1-yard run by Allen at the 8:58 mark.
The Huskies struck one more time in the third, as Whitmer hooked up with Deshon Foxx, who beat corner Josh Hawkins for an 88-yard TD to tie the game at 21.
In front of a charged crowd dressed in all black, the Pirates wasted little time getting on the scoreboard as they unleashed a 12-play 79-yard drive that ended when Hardy fought off a hold on cornerback Jhavon Williams to grab a 13-yard fade pass from Carden to take a 7-0 lead on their first possession.
The lead quickly grew to 14-0 when Carden zipped a 10-yard fade pass to 6-foot-6 inside receiver Bryce Williams, who stretched over Williams to complete a 47-yard drive.
The Huskies clawed back on their second possession, racing up field on a seven-play, 77-yard drive that was highlighted by a 43-yard play-action pass to Thomas Lucas, who managed to get past corner Detric Allen. The possession ended when Whitmer plunged across the goal line from one yard out.
The Pirates offense that looked as crisp as the autumn air that surrounded it in the first quarter, fell out of rhythm in the second. Penalties, dropped passes, an interception and a Harvey’s missed field goal ensured ECU would not reach the end zone again before halftime.
After failing to convert a fourth-and-two at the Huskies 45-yard line on their first drive of the second quarter, Pirates defensive lineman Terry Biles batted a Whitmer pass and pulled it in to give ECU possession at the UConn 33. However, the Pirates would give it right back, as Carden attempted to force a pass to Hardy in the back of the end zone and was intercepted by Byron Jones.
The Huskies were equally inept, and could not cash in on the turnover as a false start on a 47-yard field goal attempt forced coach Bob Diaco to reconsider and punt.
It was on the ensuing possession that ECU botched its own field goal attempt. After initially lining up for a 28-yard try, the Pirates were called for a delay of game penalty that moved Harvey back five yards and led to him missing his fourth field goal attempt out of his last five tries.