The good news for East Carolina was that wide receiver Zay Jones wasted little time setting a new NCAA career receptions record Saturday.
The problem was that it occurred early in the second quarter, then Navy took over.
The Midshipmen scored 38 consecutive points following Jones’ record catch, turning a 10-point deficit into a commanding lead in a 66-31 victory over the Pirates at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
With the win, Navy (8-2, 6-1) clinched the American Athletic Conference’s West Division and a berth in the AAC championship game scheduled for Dec. 3.
East Carolina (3-8, 1-6) dropped its third consecutive game, and eight of its last nine, the only bright spot during the skid coming in a 41-3 victory over Connecticut on Oct. 29.
Jones hauled in his 388th career pass early in the second quarter, a 19-yard reception from quarterback Gardner Minshew.
Following the 43-yard field goal by the Pirates’ Davis Plowman, a quick ceremony honoring Jones for setting the new mark was held during the subsequent TV timeout. Justin Hardy, the former ECU receiver who held the mark, was present to hand him a commemorative ball as he accepted congratulations from coach Scottie Montgomery and his teammates at midfield.
“I can’t put into words how proud I am of him, how hard he’s worked,” Montgomery said.
The school wasted little time unfurling a large sign on the Murphy Center at one end of the stadium celebrating Jones’ career mark.
“There was an ugly guy on that banner,” Jones cracked before getting serious again. “I thought it was amazing and really cool to see.”
Trailing 17-7 with 10:12 to go in the first half, Navy started its next drive with a 47-yard pass from quarterback Will Worth to Tyler Carmona. Four plays later, Worth dove in from the 1 to narrow the gap to 17-14.
East Carolina went three-and-out in its final three possessions of the first half. Navy responded with two touchdowns and a 29-yard field goal from Bennett Moehring in the waning seconds to stake Navy to a 31-17 halftime lead.
“We were trying to steal possessions from Navy, and they stole the possessions from us.” Montgomery said.
“We just had to stay patient,” Navy coach Ken Nuimatalolo said. “We gave up some (points early). We just had to settle down a little bit defensively and offensively we just had to be patient.”
The Midshipmen took the second-half kickoff and went 73 yards in 10 plays for another touchdown, aided by an offside penalty on East Carolina on fourth-and-2 to hand Navy a first down.
Then the Midshipmen’s Ryan Harris recovered a fumble by Jordan Williams on the ensuing kickoff. Jamir Tillman followed with a spectacular 36-yard reception, and Worth finished with 1-yard scoring plunge to put Navy ahead 45-17 with 8:37 to go in the third quarter.
In a 17-minute span bridging the first and second halves, Navy scored 38 unanswered points, while East Carolina failed to record so much as a first down. The Midshipman also scored on nine consecutive possessions following Jones’ record reception.
Jones had 12 receptions for 212 yards and two touchdowns, setting a personal mark for reception yardage in a game. He had the game’s first score, a 40-yard strike using a double move on a post pattern to leave his defender by 10 yards. He added a 77-yard score down the sideline late in the third quarter.
This season, Jones has 151 receptions for 1,685 yards – leading the nation in both categories - and eight touchdowns. The single-season receptions record of 155, set by Bowling Green’s Freddie Barnes, is within reach and he’ll attempt to break that next week at Temple in the Pirates’ season finale.
Worth finished with 159 yards rushing for Navy, and fullback Shawn White added a career-high 150, making them the fifth and sixth opposing playing to rush for 100 or more yards in the last three games against East Carolina.
“The holes got really, really wide, especially for a big guy like me,” White said. He had 193 yards rushing for the season going into the game.
Navy finished with 480 yards on the ground and 593 yards of total offense. The Midshipmen’s nine rushing touchdowns were the most scored against the Pirates in a single game.
James Summers had 137 yards rushing for East Carolina, the bulk of it coming on an 81-yard touchdown sprint in the third quarter. Minshew finished 16-for-25 passing for 238 yards and three touchdowns.
The game was originally scheduled for Oct. 13, but Hurricane Matthew and the flooding from the Tar River that ensued following the storm forced a postponement.