The fourth-quarter has belonged to East Carolina all season.
Until Thursday night.
Freshman Andrew Gantz nailed a career-long 47-yard field goal with 15 seconds left in the game and Cincinnati added a last-second touchdown on a Pirates turnover while pulling out a 54-46 American Athletic Conference win at Paul Brown Stadium.
“It’s always devastating,” said senior strong safety Lamar Ivey, who had two interceptions and a fumble recovery that seemed to set up East Carolina’s winning touchdown. “Any loss is big. It hurts a lot.”
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The Pirates appeared to take control after Ivey pounced on Bearcats’ quarterback Gunner Kiel’s ill-advised option pitch with 2:03 left in the game. The Pirates maintained possession with a fourth-down pass-interference penalty before converting the turnover with quarterback Shane Carden’s two-yard touchdown run. They led, 46-45, after the two-point conversion attempt failed.
Wide receiver Justin Hardy set season highs with 15 catches for 188 yards as ECU (6-3, 3-2) slipped into a tie with Houston for fourth place in the AAC. Cincinnati (6-3, 4-1) moved into a first-place tie with Memphis.
“It was a tough game,” said Carden, who finished 35-of-61 for 418 yards and two touchdowns while being sacked four times. “Both teams knew they had so much on the line. We put our hearts on the line.”
A virtually untouched Kiel – who was sacked just once – went 29-of-44 for 436 yards and four touchdowns as the Pirates’ defense was shredded for a season-high 586 yards of total offense. The Bearcats’ 54 points also were the most allowed by ECU this season.
The Pirates went into the game allowing averages of 339.4 yards per game, 24th in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and 23 points, which ranked 37th, but they came up with three interceptions and Ivey’s fumble recovery while outscoring Cincinnati, 23-13, on turnovers.
“We talked about turnovers,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. “Takeaways were key for us.”
The Bearcats also rushed for 150 yards, almost 54 above the average of 96.8 East Carolina had been yielding through its first eight games.
The Pirates, who were upset, 20-10, at Temple on Nov. 1, have lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2011.
After falling behind, 17-6, early in the second quarter, the Pirates scored two touchdowns in less than two minutes to take their first lead. Marquez Grayson scored on an 11-yard run with 9:07 left in the first half.
On the next UC possession, junior defensive end Johnathon White collected his first career interception on a deflection off of a Bearcats’ receiver at their 35-yard line. ECU converted with a crafty reverse pitch to Hardy for a seven-yard touchdown with 7:36 remaining before halftime.
UC quickly bounced back on Kiel’s 66-yard post pattern bomb to a wide-open Chris Moore to regain a 24-20 lead and followed up with an eight-play, 77-yard drive that led to a two-yard touchdown run and a 31-20 halftime lead.
The Bearcats piled up 393 yards of total offense in the first half, just 48 shy of the previous single-game season-high allowed by ECU at South Carolina on Sept. 6. The 20 first-half points scored by the Gamecocks had been the most allowed by the Pirates this season.
The Bearcats added a third unanswered touchdown on the first possession of the second half before ECU went 81 yards – all picked up by Breon Allen – in five plays and 44 seconds, a blitz capped by Allen’s 40-yard touchdown run.
The Pirates, who hurt themselves with five turnovers in their loss at Temple, wasted no time shooting themselves in the foot again on Thursday. ECU took the opening kickoff and drove into the Bearcats’ red zone, but Quay Johnson was stripped at the Cincinnati 17. The Bearcats need just three plays and 52 seconds to convert the turnover into a 7-0 lead on a 55-yard catch-and-run connection of Kiel to wide receiver Mekale McKay.
The Pirates allowed a total of 14 first-quarter points in their first seven games before giving up 14 each of their last two games.