An underdog team came to Greenville on Saturday and the message it delivered might be the most important one East Carolina will receive all season: Expect the unexpected.
What was expected was that the No. 22 Pirates (4-1, 1-0 America Athletic) would roll past a winless Southern Methodist (0-5, 0-1) team that was a 40-point underdog thanks to its Football Bowl Subdivision-worst 3.0 scoring average.
What was expected was that ECU would have its B-team on the field midway through the second half and the Mustangs would be headed for defeat by the end of the first quarter.
None of that happened. ECU won 45-24, but it was not easy.
SMU decided it had nothing to lose. Having suffered through the resignation of coach June Jones after a 43-6 loss to North Texas in Week 2, the Mustangs, led by fourth-string, walk-on quarterback Garrett Krstich and interim coach Tom Mason, decided if their backs were against the wall, they were going to come out swinging.
Mason completely abandoned the running game after halftime and hit ECU with a quick passing attack that caught the Pirates by surprise.
“It’s definitely not” what we expected to see, ECU cornerback Josh Hawkins said. “We knew they were going to throw the ball, but we didn’t know they were going to throw it that much.”
Saddled with a rushing attack that averaged 44 yards per game to rank 123rd out of 125 FBS teams, the Mustangs figured why even bother running the ball against a defense that stands 40th in the country against the run and did not allow a single rushing yard by halftime.
Mason turned Krstich loose, allowing him to air it out 67 times for 42 completions, 339 yards and two touchdowns.
“They really just hit us with a lot of quick passes,” inside linebacker Zeek Bigger said. “It was something that we really weren’t looking for at the time. It was something that we really didn’t go over in practice, not knowing that they were going to throw it that quick.”
Something else that was unexpected was how quick and often Mason would roll the dice on fourth down. The Mustangs attempted and converted three fourth-down plays on one drive during the second quarter, leading to an eight-minute, 18-play drive that resulted in a touchdown.
Overall, SMU converted five of six fourth-down attempts to frustrate a Pirates defense that had held the Mustangs to 4-of-17 on third downs.
The Mustangs caught fire during the third quarter, outscoring the Pirates 17-7 to cut the deficit to 35-24, before the Pirates threw water on SMU with a 10-0 run.
“That’s why I say, ‘Play the next play.’ That’s what I mean,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. “ You have to understand that, that’s going to happen, so it wasn’t a surprise to the coaches on our team. But, we had to weather through and I thought we did a good job of it.”
The lessons learned no doubt will pay off when ECU plays other struggling teams like UConn (1-4, 0-2) and Tulane (1-4, 0-1).
“We still have things to work on; that’s why we’re going to go out and practice (Sunday) and watch film,” Bigger said. “No game will be easy in this conference. We’ll have to fight.”