It wasn’t the 41-point beat down the odds-makers predicted, but No. 22 East Carolina still managed to pull off a 45-24 victory over Southern Methodist on Saturday to capture its first-ever American Athletic Conference victory.
“First, I don’t care about predictions,” ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill said. “I didn’t predict that. Forty points? I don’t know where that came from or who started that. All I want to do is win the game by one point.”
Thanks to wide receiver Justin Hardy’s first three-touchdown game of his career, each of which came in the first half, the Pirates appeared to be well on their way to living up to the predictions, banking up a 28-7 halftime lead.
Hardy would finish the contest with eight receptions for 120 yards, while quarterback Shane Carden threw for 410 yards and four touchdowns to pass former ECU great David Garrard as the school’s all-time leader in passing yards with 9,134.
SMU (0-5, 0-1) entered the game averaging an FBS-worst three points per contest, but on Saturday its offense found flickers of life. Led by fourth-string, walk-on quarterback Garrett Krstich (42-67-1, 339 yards, 2 TDs), the Mustangs ponied up for 17 third-quarter points to cut the deficit to 35-24 going into the fourth.
SMU, who had scored only one touchdown in its four previous games, struck behind a quick passing attack and a nothing-to-lose attitude that allowed the Mustangs to go 5-of-6 on fourth downs and rack up 339 passing yards.
It was an approach that caught the Pirates defense off guard.
“It was really a lot of quick passes, something we really weren’t ready for at the time,” said ECU linebacker Zeek Bigger, who had seven tackles. “It was something that we really didn’t go over in practice, not knowing that they were going to throw it that quick.”
The Pirates raced out to a 21-0 lead as Carden hooked up with Isaiah Jones on an 11-yard play-action pass on their second drive of the game, then added two Hardy touchdowns on slants of nine and two yards to go up 21-0 at the start of the second quarter.
It was about that time the Mustangs interim coach Tom Mason turned into Chris Moneymaker. On the ensuing possession, SMU converted fourth down attempts of 2, 4 and 1 yards, respectively to complete an 18-play, 79-yard drive that chewed 8:04 off the clock and ended with a 2-yard touchdown run by Kevin Pope.
“I was like, ‘They’re going for it. This team right here has some (guts),” said ECU corner Josh Hawkins, who had six tackles and three pass breakups. “They have some great players and some great wide receivers, and they definitely challenged us.”
The Pirates held the SMU ground game to one rushing yard all the way up until the fourth quarter and allowed only 51 yards for the game. However, the Mustangs countered in the air behind wide receiver Darius Joseph, who caught 13 passes for 100 yards and two touchdownss.
East Carolina found its footing in the fourth. The Pirates shutout SMU in the final 15 minutes, while adding a Warren Harvey 24-yard field goal and an 8-yard touchdown run by Chris Hairston to beat back SMU.
Saturday’s game was ECU’s first as a ranked opponent since Sept. 21, 2008 and with the win the Pirates improved to 13-6 as a ranked team.