GREENVILLE – Officially, the game was decided in the last game when Parker White of South Carolina scored a 36-yard field goal for a 20-17 victory over East Carolina at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The start of the end for the Pirates, however, came in the dying minute of the first half.
Coach Mike Houston’s team were leading their opponent SEC by 14 at the time and were apparently in full control when quarterback Holton Ahlers saw his screen pass intercepted by Damani Staley of the Gamecocks.
The son of former NFL running back Duce Staley returned 63 yards for a touchdown that brought South Carolina to life and sparked the comeback that would ultimately lead to last game drama on Saturday.
“It was a big game,” Houston said of pick six. “He would give anything to get it back. They called a squeeze, we called a screen, and sometimes the screens are festive or famine. If you take it away, it will be a huge game for us. The kid made a great game, and that’s probably the difference in the ball game.
ECU (0-2) were close to scoring goals in the game-changing third and 10 games. But instead of increasing their lead by two touchdowns, the Pirates saw their advantage halved when pressure from Gamecock defensive end Aaron Sterling forced Ahlers to get rid of the ball sooner than he was. wanted to.
It was one of many opportunities that ECU’s offense missed in a first half in which their opponent couldn’t seem to get out of their own way thanks to turnovers and penalties.
The Pirates also missed a 44-yard field goal, allowed four sacks in the first half and failed to expand their possessions by struggling on the third down. They only converted 2 of 16 for the game.
Their two touchdown “drives” consisted of a 75-yard completion on a rigged play and a two-part 13-yard drive following a turnover.
“We should have broken that one if we converted those third downs,” said Ahlers, who finished 11 of 24 for 77 yards and two interceptions. “I told the defense that when they play like this we should win every time. It’s not about defense at all. It’s on the attack and it starts with me. I’m the quarterback.
Houston, however, absolved his quarterback by pointing out that the opposition had a lot to do with his team’s inability to maintain practice. As a team, the Pirates only gained 263 yards of total attack – 152 in the air, 111 on the ground.
“We didn’t convert as many points as we wanted, but I mean, you’re playing very good SEC defense,” said the ECU coach. “That defensive line, you have at least one first-round draft pick and two five-star kids – one of them was the top defensive end in the country coming out of high school. We weren’t playing against mediocre players.
And yet, the Pirates still managed to put the Gamecocks (2-0) on the ropes by hitting them with a small precocious trick. In the first game of the game, wide receiver Tyler Snead took a transfer from Ahlers on what appeared to be a backhand, but instead stopped and threw a shot at Jsi Hatfield for a 75-yard touchdown.
“We wanted to go out and be aggressive because we knew they were going to be aggressive with us,” Houston said.
“I was really excited,” said Snead, who was told he would lead the game in practice on Thursday. “We practiced it, we worked on it, I’m glad we executed the result.”
ECU defense also showed early execution. Not only did his pressure make USC’s Zeb Noland look more like the graduate assistant he once was than the quarterback he was forced to become, it also kept the Gamecocks from establishing. a semblance of a racing game.
The Pirates also created a big turnover when linebacker Jeremy Lewis withdrew the ball from wide receiver Dakereon Joyner into the hands of teammate DJ Ford, who returned it to USC 13 – leading to the second touchdown of the l ‘ECU.
Although South Carolina managed to tie the game with a third-quarter touchdown pass from Noland to Joyner, then respond to an Owen Daffer’s 26-yard basket with one of their own before foiling the team’s offer. Pirates for a program-defining win, Ford was encouraged by a defensive performance, his teammate Ahlers calling the best he has seen in his four seasons at the ECU.
“I think our guys reacted well,” said Ford, a North Carolina transfer security graduate. “We did exactly what the coaches told us to do. We got out flying and we were physical. No one can doubt it. It was evident in the way we played.
Until the end that is to say.
Whether it was fatigue or a change in South Carolina’s blocking system, the Gamecocks managed to cover 54 yards on 10 plays in the 4:54 finals to set up the kick. winner of the Whites. Forty-five of those yards came on runs by Juju McDowell, a first-year rookie who initially signed on to NC State.
The end was particularly disappointing for the Pirates, who – despite being spurred on by a party crowd of 40,816 – saw the last vestiges of the momentum gained by ending the 2020 season with two straight wins slipping away from them.
“If anything, I think everyone sees the kind of heart that this group has,” Houston said. “They will fight. We’re going to show up next week (at Marshall’s), we’re going to play. We have pretty high expectations internally, the kids are jostling each other. Granted, they really wanted this one, for so many reasons. They will come back.