It had been almost three years since Philip Nelson last played in a college game, but the East Carolina senior transfer quarterback showed no signs of rust on Saturday.
Nelson threw for five touchdowns and added another on the ground as the Pirates rolled to a 52-7 season-opening win over Western Carolina.
“What you saw was a quarterback that understands the offense and lived up to everything that we thought he would be,” coach Scottie Montgomery said after his first game at the helm in Greenville.
The former Minnesota starter, who last played in a 2013 Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, sat out last season for ECU after being expelled from Rutgers in 2014. He looked like a grizzled veteran of the program Saturday, however, picking apart the Catamounts’ defense with deep bombs to wide receiver Zay Jones and dump-off passes to running back Anthony Scott.
Jones hauled in 10 receptions for 180 yards and a touchdown, while Scott added 210 all-purpose yards (90 receiving, 120 rushing) and three touchdowns, helping Nelson complete 28 of 32 attempts for 398 yards in his debut.
“It makes me feel good as a quarterback knowing that what we did over the summer really paid off,” Nelson said. “I know that any ball I throw, (Jones is) gonna go get, he’s not gonna let anybody else touch it. He’s an unbelievable weapon to have.”
Western Carolina drove into ECU territory in each of its first four drives but was unable to convert the possessions into any points, throwing a fluky interception inside the 10-yard line on its first opportunity and then punting on the next three occasions.
In front of 44,161 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, an explosive Pirates offense made the Catamounts pay for that inefficiency.
Nelson found the endzone for the first time since Nov. 9, 2013, with a 7-yard touchdown scramble in the first quarter and engineered 89-, 55- and 80-yard drives on his first three possessions. ECU led 31-7 at halftime.
“I thought the turnover at the beginning of the game was such a huge play,” Montgomery said. “Then we go down and get the score off of it, and it’s kind of offense and defense working together there.”
The second half only held more of the same. For every mistake by Western Carolina — such as a untimely stumble by returner Dentrez Newsome resulting in a kickoff return to its own 1-yard line — there was a big play by ECU, like a career-high 48-yard dash by Scott late in the third quarter.
Catamounts quarterback Tyrie Adams earned 167 yards and one touchdown on 12-of-24 passing in addition to 51 rushing yards. Newsome carried 16 times for 50 yards.
How East Carolina won:
New ECU coach Scottie Montgomery’s offensive schemes pushed the pace of play and forced Western Carolina to try to match the Pirates’ athleticism in the open field, something they failed to do.
Hybrid player James Summers occasionally spelled Nelson in the wildcat formation and Nelson frequently found Summers and Scott on routes rolling out of the backfield, keeping the Catamounts on their toes.
What It Means:
Heading into a critical nonconference matchup at home against N.C. State next week, ECU avoided any major injuries, gained plenty of confidence and developed a very promising connection between Nelson and Jones. Their long-distance connections resembled those between Shane Carden and Justin Hardy in years past.
Western Carolina returns home to Cullowhee for an intra-FCS game against Gardner-Webb.
688 total yards of offense for ECU, its most since a 70-41 win over North Carolina in September 2014.