A cream colored straitjacket covered up their once visible all-black jerseys. Shackles wound horizontally across their bodies, while handcuffs secured their wrists. The clock was set to 15 minutes. Yet, somehow, the Pirates managed to escape.
In the fourth quarter of Thursday night nationally televised contest with UConn, the No. 18 Pirates found themselves reeling from a third quarter that saw them outscored 14-7 by a Huskies team whose only win of the season came against FCS-level Stony Brook.
With the clock ticking, East Carolina unraveled the burden of its 11-penatly, 105-yard performance and shed the binds of UConn’s big-play passing game to slip out of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with a 31-21 victory.
If the College Football Playoff committee wasn’t impressed, somewhere the late, great Harry Houdini was. And so was fifth-year coach Ruffin McNeill, whose team dodged a bullet for the second straight game to stay in contention for right to represent the Group of Five in a New Year’s Day bowl.
“It was a great win. A tough win,” McNeill said. “We caught another team’s best shot two weeks in a row, and we knew we would catch that when we entered conference play. ... I told the players, ‘Do not dare try to defend a win.’ The main thing is to win, and we did that.”
With the win, East Carolina locked up bowl eligibility for the eighth time in the past nine season and improved to 6-1 for the first time since 1999. The Pirates also upped their American Athletic Conference record to 3-0 to remain in first with Central Florida (4-2, 2-0).
“We just kept believing,” said ECU quarterback Shane Carden, who threw for 445 yards and two scores. “There were times where it wasn’t working and we weren’t playing our best, but we kept believing in our offense and the things we’ve been doing all year and we were able to grind out a win.”
ECU jumped out to a 14-0 lead after its first two possessions, but someone forget to tell the Huskies they were supposed to roll over. UConn, whose 12.8 points per game average was the second-lowest in the FBS, responded with a 77-yard drive to score their first first-quarter touchdown of the season.
Both teams blew scoring opportunities in the second quarter. ECU missed a 33-yard field goal that would have been a 28-yard attempt if not for a delay of game penalty. The Huskies botched their own field goal try, as a false start flag on a 47-yard attempt led to coach Bob Diaco deciding he’d rather punt.
UConn threw its best punch in the third, scoring two touchdowns to tie the Pirates at 14 and 21 to take a stranglehold on momentum going into the fourth.
However, ECU rediscovered a running game that had all but vanished and made just enough plays at the right time to take a 17-14 advantage on a 31-yard Warren Harvey field goal. The Pirates secured that lead with a 10-play 76-yard drive that ended with a Breon Allen nine-yard TD run.
For one more week, the Pirates proved adept at the art of escape.
“In the fourth quarter we needed points, and we were able to do it,” Carden said. “I think that speaks highly of our offense. … Yeah, we didn’t play our best, but when we needed a big play to win this game, we got it.”