Looks like East Carolina will be home for the holidays. On Saturday, the Pirates failed to clinch bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011 when Cincinnati kicker Andrew Gantz booted a 42-yard walk-off field goal to give the Bearcats a 19-16 victory over ECU in both teams’ regular-season finale.
Like so many times this season, Saturday’s game came down to the wire. And like so many times this season, the other team made the deciding play.
The loss prevented the Pirates (5-7, 3-5 AAC) from achieving bowl eligibility for the second time during ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill’s six-year tenure with the team. It was a tough pill to swallow for the Pirates seniors.
“That’s just the game of football,” ECU senior linebacker Zeek Bigger said. “We had to make a stop there, but they came up with the field goal.
“I can’t say anything bad about our team. We came out here and fought each and every play … We just gave it all we got, man. We came up short.”
With the score tied at 16, Cincinnati (7-5, 4-4 AAC) started its final possession at its own 19 with 2:34 left on the clock. The Bearcats pushed the ball up to the Pirates 25 when they called for a timeout to set up a field goal attempt by Gantz with :04 left in the game.
“During that final possession we were basically trying to stop the run,” said ECU linebacker Jordan Williams, who led the Pirates with 14 tackles. “We knew they were going to try to run out the clock and kick a field goal. We held up pretty good, but they got a little too close. We got struck in the heart.”
That they did, as Saturday’s last-second loss was an all too familiar scenario for ECU this year and one that inevitably kept them out of the postseason.
“It was a well-played game. I thought both teams had opportunities to win the game. I give them credit for making the one at the end,” McNeill said. “I thought we left some plays out there that would have gave us a little bit better opportunity at the end.”
Quarterback Blake Kemp started his second straight game and completed 33 of his 50 attempts for 315 yards and one touchdown, while leading ECU in rushing with 33 yards.
Kemp and his team came out hot in the first quarter as a Davis Plowman 20-yard field goal combined with a spectacular touchdown catch by Davon Grayson gave the Pirates a 10-0 lead after their first two possession.
Cincy quarterback Gunner Kiel and a sturdy ground game paved the way for the Bearcats’ comeback. Kiel threw for 270 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Bearcats wide receiver Shaq Washington led the attack with a game-high 15 receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown.
ECU led 10-6 at halftime, but a Bearcats’ 10-0 run in the third quarter allowed them to go up 16-10 heading into the final quarter.
A gutsy, 78-yard scoring drive enabled the Pirates to pull even, but a penalty kept them from taking the lead.
ECU finally regained its rhythm midway through the fourth quarter as Kemp led his unit inside the Cincy 20. The Pirates’ drive came to a fork in the road when they faced fourth-and-goal at the Bearcats two-yard line. Having to decide between a field goal attempt that would cut the lead in half or a touchdown that would put the Pirates up by a point, McNeill opted to go for the score.
McNeill inserted dual-threat quarterback James Summers in for Kemp, then called a play-action pass that resulted in a Bryce Williams two-yard touchdown. However, Summers drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting after the touchdown and the yardage was applied to the extra point attempt, which was missed by Plowman.
The Pirates had one last chance to put some points on the board before Cincy’s final drive, but went three-and-out and punted the ball back to the Bearcats for the game-winning drive.