East Carolina backup quarterback Gardner Minshew sparked a second-half rally but it wasn’t enough to keep the Pirates from losing their fourth straight game for the first time since 2004.
Minshew threw for 220 yards and a touchdown in a quarter and a half and led the Pirates to 16 unanswered points, but South Florida racked up 556 yards on offense and scored two late fourth-quarter touchdowns to earn a 38-22 win Saturday at Raymond James Stadium.
The sophomore entered the game at 7:10 in the third quarter to replace starter Philip Nelson, who left the field shaken up after taking a series of hard hits, and helped the Pirates try to rally from a 24-6 deficit.
“I thought our guys battled,” Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery said. “We ran the ball effectively. Losing your quarterback makes it tough, but Gardner came in and did a good job. This one really hurts. Our guys are starting to play better football now. I think we’re starting to make a turn for the good even though the outcome wasn’t what we wanted.”
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Minshew hit a 28-yard pass to Deondre Farrier on a third-and-13 to set up a 3-yard touchdown run by James Summers to make the score 24-22 with 6:58 remaining in the game. The Pirates, however, failed to tie the scorewhen the 2-point conversion pass to Anthony Scott was incomplete.
“They had great coverage on that play,” Minshew said. “They had two guys on (Zay Jones) and that was our primary guy, and we couldn’t get it to him.”
South Florida (5-1, 2-0 AAC) answered on the next drive when Quinton Flowers connected with Rodney Adams on a 62-yard touchdown pass to put the Bulls back up by nine.
The Bulls added a late touchdown from Marlon Mack after Minshew was intercepted by Bulls linebacker Nigel Harris on a fourth-and-4 with less than four minutes remaining.
South Florida continued to throw the ball downfield as time was running out, and Flowers completed another touchdown pass to D’Ernest Johnson with one second left. The play, however, was nullified on a holding call.
Montgomery and Bulls coach Willie Taggart had a quick and frosty handshake after the game.
“I guess they were trying to get their team better,” Montgomery said. “The way we run our program I would have taken a knee, but when you’re the victors you get to choose. I don’t look at them any different than I looked at them earlier.”
Taggart defended the move.
“Where does it say in the rule book you have to take a knee?” Taggart asked. “We wanted to score, period. That’s our job.”
But the story of the game for the Pirates was Minshew, a transfer from Northwest Mississippi College. His 46-yard pass to Farrier set up the Pirates first touchdown – a 1-yard pass to Jones to make the score 24-13 with 5:26 left in the third quarter.
After the Pirates made a defensive stand Minshew went back to work and drove the Pirates down to the Bulls’ 14 before the drive stalled and led to Davis Plowman’s third field goal of the game to pull East Carolina to 24-16 with 11:49 remaining in the game.
“(Minshew) knows this offense as well as anybody in my view,” Summers said. “He knows what he’s doing. He tried his best.”
East Carolina (2-4, 0-2) took a 3-0 lead after taking the opening drive 61 yards and settling for a 40-yard field goal from Plowman. The senior also had a 49-yard field goal in the first half but missed a 42-yard with the kick hit one of the goal posts.
“We didn’t do a good job in the first half of getting into the red zone,” Montgomery said. “They were able to stop us in the ‘strike zone’ between the 35- and 25-yard line. We got better in the second half.”
South Florida got two first-half touchdowns from D’Ernest Johnson and took a 17-6 halftime lead. Mack rushed for 152 yards and two touchdowns. Flowers was 21-of-29 for 250 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 115 yards.
Jones had 18 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown. Summers rushed for 118 yards and a touchdown. He also had four catches for 25 yards.
Nelson was 12-of-23 for 88 yards before leaving the game. Pirates defensive back Colby Gore was called for targeting in the first quarter and ejected from the game.
“We’re not out of this thing,” Jones said. “It’s college football, things happen all the time. A (conference) championship is still possible. We’ve faced some great teams but we can turn this around.”