Just when it looked like East Carolina might get away with a win, South Florida reclaimed the lead and got the 22-17 victory on a rainy Saturday night at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The Pirates (4-6, 2-4 AAC) overcame a first half in which the offense failed to get a first down or gain more than 30 yards of total offense, and managed to take their second lead of the game when Davis Plowman nailed a 40-yard field goal to pull ahead 17-15 with 10 minutes left in the fourth.
However, the Bulls (5-4, 3-2) were stubborn, and refused to go out without a fight. With 4:40 left, USF’s Quinton Flowers connected with a wide open Rodney Adams for a 69-yard touchdown pass, giving the Pirates their third straight loss and putting their bowl eligibility in serious jeopardy.
“They switched routes and we lost our eye discipline,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said of Adams’ touchdown. “I thought we had great eye discipline all night and just that one moment we didn’t.”
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ECU had one last chance as it got the ball back with 45 seconds left and no timeouts, but never got past midfield.
Flowers finished with 200 passing yards and two touchdown passes. South Florida running back Marlon Mack gained a game-high 117 yards, while Sean Price caught a 16-yard touchdown pass.
ECU quarterback James Summers, who started for the fourth time this year, finished the game completing 14 of his 22 attempts for 158 yards and had touchdown runs of 7 and 3 yards.
The Pirates had been using a two-quarterback system for much of the season, but on Saturday McNeill stuck with Summers for the entire game despite the offense having the worst first-half performance in the coach’s six-year tenure.
“With this offense you have to let them see the looks,” McNeill said. “That’s the patient part. We talked about (playing with) no hesitation all week long. We told him do not hesitate. Just let it go. Swing you’re sword and fire it. And we saw glimpse of that in the second half.”
In the first half, USF outgained the Pirates 277 yards to 29, held a 22:05 to 7:55 time of possession advantage and picked up 16 first downs to the Pirates zero, but led only 12-7 going into the break.
“That’s not us. You know what we’ve done here for five years,” McNeill said. “We set all kinds of offensive records here. … With James, everybody be patient with him. He’s getting reps under fire.”
It took until late in the third quarter for the Pirates to piece together a lengthy drive, but it was worth the wait. They strung together an eight-play, 59-yard scoring drive that ended with a two-yard touchdown run by Summers and gave ECU a 14-12 lead, its first of the night.
McNeill could have gone for a two-point conversion that would have given ECU a three-point lead if successful, but instead he opted for the extra point.
Summers and the Pirates offense were dreadful early on. The dual-threat quarterback missed his first five attempts and didn’t complete a pass until midway through the second quarter. At the half, Summers was 1-for-6 for six yards with a QB rating of 25.1.
The junior accounted for more points for the Bulls than the Pirates in the first quarter as he got called for an intentional grounding penalty in the ECU end zone, giving USF a safety and a 2-0 lead.
South Florida cashed in on the extra possession with a 10-play, 69-yard scoring drive at the start of the second. Wide receiver Sean Price pulled in a 16-yard scoring pass from Flowers and the Bulls went up 9-0.
ECU finally put points on the board in the second quarter, but only after the defense set the tee for the offense.
After getting pinned at the 2-yard line by a 73-yard Worth Gregory punt, USF found itself facing a 3rd-and-24 situation. The Bulls opted to hand off to D’Ernest Johnson on a draw, and he was stripped by defensive end Fred Presley. The ball was recovered by Yiannis Bowden, giving the Pirates possession at the seven.
On the next play, Summers scrambled for seven yards and cut the deficit to 9-7 with 4:06 left in the half.
USF would add a 36-yard field goal right before the end of the second to go into halftime up 12-7.