East Carolina’s rebuilding football program has shown signs of improvement from back-to-back 3-9 seasons the past two years, but the margin of error is so slim the Pirates are slipping deeper under .500.
Houston took an early two-touchdown lead, held off an ECU rally and benefited from four turnovers to break open a 42-20 victory over the Pirates in an American Athletic Conference game Saturday night at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The Cougars improved to 5-1 overall and stand alone atop the AAC West at 2-0. The Pirates lost for the third time in four games to fall to 2-4 and 0-3 in the AAC East.
ECU started redshirt sophomore quarterback Reid Herring again, but the Pirates faced a second straight week without a touchdown until the fourth quarter. True freshman Holton Ahlers directed scoring drives of 10 plays, 96 yards and eight and 62. He hit Trevon Brown with a 13-yard TD pass and scored on a 1-yard run.
Cougars coach Major Applewhite said he prepared his high-scoring team that averaged 50.0 points a game entering the contest to face an ECU roster that nearly upset No. 23-ranked South Florida three weeks ago before falling (20-13). He told them to ignore ECU’s embarrassing loss a week ago at Temple (49-6).
Houston’s first score was a seven-play, 74-yard drive. On a third-and-2, Patrick Carr gained six yards. Two plays later, quarterback D’Eriq King hit Courtney Lark with a 38-yard touchdown pass that included a broken tackle on his run after the catch.
The Cougars’ second TD drive was 10 plays, 74 yards with 2-of-2 third-down conversions. King scored on an 8-yard run.
The pattern was eerily reminiscent of last week’s Temple debacle, but this time the Pirates responded by moving the ball to close the deficit to 14-3 midway through the second quarter. Jake Verity hit a 32-yard field goal to cap a 71-yard drive in 14 plays. The big gain was Herring hitting Trevon Brown for a 33-yard pass down the right sideline.
But Herring was intercepted twice and coughed up a fumble on a sack late in the third quarter. All-American defensive tackle Ed Oliver forced the fumble and Emeke Egbule scooped up the loose ball for a 5-yard TD return.
ECU defensive end Nate Harvey added to his national leading stats with 3.5 tackles for a loss that included a sack. He entered night with 14 TFLs and 1.5 sacks per game.