At the start of East Carolina’s season opener against Towson all eyes were quarterback Blake Kemp, but it didn’t take long for the 40,000-plus fans at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to take notice of Chris Hairston.
The East Carolina running back ripped off a 45-yard touchdown run on the Pirates first possession of the game and would reach the end zone three more times to lead ECU past the FCS Tigers, 28-20, on Saturday.
“It feels great but I owe it all to the O-line and the receivers and the tight ends for their blocking,” Hairston said. “They did a tremendous job and I could not have done it without them.”
Hairston’s four touchdown effort was the most by an ECU running back since Chris Johnson dashed for four TDs against Memphis in 2007. Hairston rushed 18 times for 154 yards, averaging 8.6 yards per attempt and scored on running plays of 45, 1, 1 and 11 yards, respectively.
The Pirates (1-0) needed every last one of Hairston’s scores as Towson (0-1), who went 4-8 last season but advanced to the FCS title game the year before, refused to let the Pirates sail too far ahead.
“I remember last year’s team vividly and I could not be more proud of this team,” Towson coach Rob Ambrose said. “We have a different set of guys with a different set of attitudes.”
Saturday’s game marked the first contest for ECU since the record-setting duo of quarterback Shane Carden and wide receiver Justin Hardy graduated, which put Kemp and the ECU offense under the microscope from the opening snap.
The unit looked strong early as it scored touchdowns on its first two drives to take a 14-7 lead in the first quarter. However, the offense went scoreless in the second, leaving ECU to cling to a 14-10 halftime lead.
The Pirates scored two more times in the second half, once in the third quarter and again in the fourth, to avoid being upset by a resilient Tigers team.
“Wins are hard and I’m very proud of our team,” ECU’s sixth-year coach Ruffin McNeill said. “… Give Towson credit, but also give our kids credit for finding a way to win.”
“We had a lot of replacements, and nobody’s making excuses. I thought we saw some guys step and did a very good job.”
Under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Dave Nichol, the ECU offense dinked, dunked and screen passed its way up field when it wasn’t handing off the ball to Hairston.
Kemp finished the game completing 29 of his 37 pass attempts for 230 yard and had no touchdown passes or interceptions.
Kemp, who was on pace to be the Pirates backup QB this season until Kurt Benkert sustained a season-ending knee injury, overcame midweek nerves to put forth a competent effort.
“I thought we played well. We were all on the same page,” Kemp said. “I was a little nervous earlier in the week but I spoke with my dad about something and he helped calm me down.
“… The running game and the offensive line played great. I love those guys up front and Chris did a good job pounding the rock.”
The junior led his unit on a nine-play, 72-yard drive that lasted 2:52 seconds an ended when running back Hairston slip up the middle of the Towson defense and sprinted down the left sideline for a 45-yard touchdown run to put ECU up 7-0.
The Tigers weren’t so quick to roll over and play dead. On the ensuing drive quarterback Connor Frazier (15-28-1, 221) hooked up with Brian Dowling for a 30-yard touchdown pass to even the score with 6:40 left in the first quarter.
The Pirates responded with their only other touchdown drive of the first half, a 15-play, 74-yard march up field that chewed six minutes off the clock.
Once again, the drive ended with Hairston carrying the ball across the goal line, this time from 1-yard out to go ahead 14-7.
Towson would hold ECU scoreless in the second quarter and add a 23-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-10 at halftime.
Running back Darius Victor was the lead catalyst for the Tigers, rushing for 137 yards on 28 carries.
The Pirates outscored Towson 7-3 in the third quarter to take a 21-13 lead into the fourth, where both teams added a touchdown.
East Carolina will be back in action next week when it heads south to play the Florida Gators.