Friday, November 11, 2022

ECU Comes Up Short in Cincinnati on Friday Night

CINCINNATI – East Carolina's dream of playing for an American Athletic Conference championship and taking down yet another team headed for the Big 12 vanished late Friday night in Cincinnati.

But the inspired Pirates did not succumb without taking the two-time champion Bearcats to the brink before falling 27-25 in a physical, intense and at times nasty slugfest at sold-out Nippert Stadium. ECU erased a 21-5 deficit to forge a 25-24 lead before Ryan Coe's 20-yard field goal provided the deciding points, extending the Bearcats' home winning streak to 32 straight and strengthening their bid to play in a fourth straight AAC title game.

The loss ended a three-game win streak for the Pirates (6-4, 3-3 AAC) and denied them their first win in the Queen City since 2001. Cincinnati (8-2, 4-1 AAC) won its fifth straight over the Pirates and evened the series at 13-13 as it exits to the Big 12, joining league members UCF and Houston.

"It's tough; our hearts hurt," senior quarterback Holton Ahlers said. "All of our goals (were in) winning this game and trying to get to a conference championship, something this team has never done in the American before."

ECU, coming off a bye week after wins over UCF and BYU, did essentially everything it needed to send Cincinnati off to the Big 12 with a departing loss, dominating the favored Bearcats with a short, efficient passing game and stout defense.

The Pirates piled up more yards (454-310), controlled the ball with a 79-57 advantage in plays and 36:43-23:17 in time of possession, and did not commit a turnover. Cincinnati managed a mere 66 yards rushing, and a vaunted defense that led the nation in tackles for loss at 9.0 per game registered only two and did not sack Ahlers.

When the Bearcats did strike, they struck quickly, scoring on a 100-yard kickoff return and passes of 55 and 76 yards.

"You just can't give up those explosive plays and the kickoff return," said fourth-year ECU coach Mike Houston, who dropped to 0-4 against Cincinnati. "That's it. That's the ballgame right there. You can't not make those plays."

Six penalties, including three crucial holding calls, also hampered ECU, one of the least penalized teams in the nation. Another damaging blow came late in the third quarter when a vicious hit – penalized for targeting -- by Bryon Threats knocked dynamic ECU running back Keaton Mitchell out of the game.

ECU scored on the next play to take a 25-24 lead but lost its most potent weapon for the remainder of the game.

Cincinnati limited Mitchell to 34 yards on 10 carries in the first half, but he racked up 78 yards on just six carries in the second half to finish with 112 for his fourth consecutive 100-yard game and the 12th of his career. The sophomore needs just 25 more yards to reach 1,000 for a second straight year and moved up to seventh on the school's career list with 2,550 yards.

Freshman Marlon Gunn Jr. replaced Mitchell and finished 48 yards on 11 carries.

"It hurts us not having him," Houston said of Mitchell. "Obviously he's one of the best players in the league. I thought Marlon came in played very, very well. I'm just really proud of him and how he competed. I just hate losing Keaton like that."

Before Mitchell got cranked up, Ahlers kept the offense moving and finished 26 of 46 for 280 yards with a pair of touchdowns to give him 89 for his career. The left-hander surpassed 3,000 yards for the season (3,012) and 13,000 for his career (13,131). He also passed Shane Carden on the school's career completion list with 1,061.

Cincinnati quarterback Ben Bryant misfired much of the night, completing 14 of 30 passes with one interception, but got the ball in the hands of his playmakers just enough,

A sack of Bryant by Jeremy Lewis staked ECU to a 2-0 lead, then Andrew Conrad knocked through a career-best 47-yard field goal for a 5-0 lead.

The first of the Bearcats' fireworks exploded on the ensuing kickoff when Jadon Thompson bumped into a teammate, slipped through the arms on one Pirate then emerged from a crowd in the middle of the field on the way to a 100-yard return.

Tre Tucker and Tyler Scott then turned short passes into long scoring runs, first Tucker on a 55-yard tunnel screen followed by Scott on a 76-yard slant for a 21-5 lead. Scott finished with seven catches for 140 yards, recording his fourth 100-yard game and ninth touchdown catch this season. He now has 14 scoring catches in his career – all covering at least 20 yards.

ECU answered when C.J. Johnson, who was injured on the game's final play, snared a pass from Ahlers and warded off three defenders for a 72-yard score. Coe's 37-yard field goal with 1:48 left in the half put Cincinnati up 24-12.

The Pirates immediately seized the momentum in the second half, surging ahead 25-24 on Mitchell's 4-yard run and a 15-yard strike from Ahlers to Jalen Johnson.

The Bearcats pieced together what proved to be the winning drive early in the third quarter, driving to the ECU 3 before Coe booted a 20-yarder.

The Pirates' last gasp stayed alive when Ahlers, in the grasp of a Cincinnati defender, flipped a 12-yard pass to Johnson on fourth down. But ECU could not convert a fourth-and-8 from the 41 as Ahlers' pass sailed over the hands of Johnson.

"I thought we just let one get away," Houston said. "They made a couple of plays in the first half. If we make those plays, make the tackle on the kickoff return, it's a different ballgame. The way the kids battled back in the second half, got the lead, we just need to be able to finish it off there at the end.

"We had the ball at the end with a chance to drive and score; just really disappointed we weren't able to score there at the very end," Houston said.

Story courtesy of ECU Media Relations