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The overall record the past few seasons can’t be changed, but much of the pain and disappointment from ECU’s senior class was transferred into enjoyment and celebration in the team’s 55-21 win over UConn this past Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
In the midst of celebrating Senior Night, the Pirates took advantage of a bad Connecticut opponent, racking up 657 yards of offense and shutting out the Huskies in the second half of the blowout victory, snapping a five-game losing streak and marking the their first American Athletic Conference victory of the season.
The team’s marred 3-7 overall record and 1-6 mark in AAC play wasn’t evident by the Pirates’ postgame celebration in the locker room. ECU’s players celebrated as if plenty was at stake in the game against UConn, and in their minds, there was. The Pirate coaches and players wanted to do everything they could to send the 19-man senior class out winners in their final home game.
“Really emotional last couple of days for our seniors, not only for me but for our younger players,” head coach Scottie Montgomery said after the win. “We’ve put everything around them this week. We let them pick our uniforms. We let them stand up in front of the team and say thank you for everything Pirate Nation has meant to them and some of these players in here have meant to them. It was just a special night to go out and win in the fashion that we did.”
After failing to rush the ball for at least 110 yards in each of the past five games — all losses — the Pirates churned out 415 yards rushing in the win over UConn. True freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers (130 rushing yards) and redshirt freshman running back Trace Christian became the first two 100-yard individual rushers of the season for ECU. The ground performance marked the first time ECU has run for 400 yards as a team since 2007 at Memphis.
Ahlers also threw for 242 yards and four touchdowns in the triumph.
“I don’t think I could’ve painted a better picture,” senior offensive tackle Garrett McGhin said. “It was kind of surreal just moving the ball like that. I didn’t get too caught up in it until the fourth quarter and someone said, ‘Garrett, you only have one more quarter left in Dowdy-Fick.’ You really had to say that during the game? But it was awesome.”
Several seniors made big contributions in the victory. Trevon Brown caught four passes for 31 yards and a touchdown, clinching his second consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season. Nate Harvey’s three sacks set an AAC single-season record for tackles for loss, giving him 24. Anthony Scott had 67 yards rushing and a touchdown run. Linebacker Ray Tillman had a team-high 10 tackles, while Devon Sutton added nine and Cannon Gibbs added seven, including 2.5 tackles for loss.
“It was emotional for the seniors,” Gibbs said. “A lot of guys put in a lot of work, a lot of hours — five years, some — I’ve only been here two years and I’ve been very thankful and blessed to be here.
“Tonight is something I’ll never forget. My last game in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, and winning with all my brothers.”
Brown set a single-game program record with 270 yards receiving on last year’s senior day win over Cincinnati. Then, he was helping to celebrate the careers of several key teammates. This time around, it was his teammates helping him achieve victory on his final game day in Greenville. But Brown still managed to make his time on the field count, nabbing a scoring grab in the second half to move into second all-time on ECU’s career receiving touchdowns list with 24.
“I’m used to getting a lot of catches and yards, but it didn’t frustrate me tonight,” Brown said. “I just told coach I wanted to get into the end zone one last time because the first game I played on this field I scored, and the last game I played on this field I scored. That’s all I wanted.”
GOOD VIBES ON THE ROAD
The good feeling from the team’s win over UConn won’t last too long if the Pirates don’t refocus for one of their toughest tests of the season this weekend at Cincinnati.
The Pirates defeated the Bearcats 48-20 last season at home, but this is a much different team. Cincinnati is 9-2 this year under second-year head coach Luke Fickell, with their only two losses coming on the road at Temple and at UCF. Cincinnati has a top 10 defense nationally and the top unit in the American Athletic Conference, allowing only 290 yards per game.
“They’re good up front. Their front seven is good,” offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said. “They’re kind of building a Big 10 type of team. They are similar to a Temple-type of defense. They’re going to get in front of you, they’re going to bring their lunch pails. They’ve got a good defense, they don’t let people run the ball on them and they are just solid.”
Kickoff on Black Friday is set for 3:30 p.m. EST and the game will be televised on CBS Sports Network. The Pirates then close their season the following weekend, Saturday, Dec. 1, at N.C. State.
AD SEARCH CONTINUES
The search for East Carolina’s next athletics director is well underway, though it appears it may linger into next week before an official announcement is made.
Chancellor Cecil Staton and special athletics advisor Dave Hart are running the search, which officially started at the beginning of this month. The goal is to have an AD in place by the conclusion of football season, likely to have someone to make an evaluation on the future of the football program. But the Dec. 1 deadline is quickly approaching.
Southern Miss athletics director Jon Gilbert, who used to be Hart’s right-hand man at Alabama and Tennessee, is considered a main candidate for the position. Gilbert worked at Alabama for nearly 17 years and Tennessee from 2011-17 before getting his first AD gig at Southern Miss in January of 2017.
ECU LANDS TWO JUCO COMMITS
Despite questions surrounding the long-term status of Montgomery at ECU following a third consecutive losing season, the head coach continues to do well on the recruiting trail.
The Pirates picked up two verbal commitments after official visits over the weekend, as three-stars and junior college products defensive tackle Hozey Haji-Badri (ASA College) and offensive tackle Bailey Malovic (Highland C.C.) committed to ECU’s coaching staff. Both players plan to enroll early and join the program in January after signing in December.
ECU also flipped former Appalachian State pledge Alex Angus, a defensive back from Page High School in Greensboro, earlier this month. The Pirates now have 22 commits for the 2019 recruiting class, which ranks third in the American Athletic Conference and 56th nationally, according to 247Sports.
Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.