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ECU cruises to 55-14 win over Southern Miss

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GREENVILLE, N.C. -

East Carolina's football team had no trouble finding the end zone on Saturday.

A week after settling for field goals or coming up empty in trips to the red zone for the first 58 minutes of a frustrating triple-overtime loss at Tulane, the Pirates settled the issue early against winless Southern Miss with touchdowns on four of their first five possessions as they rolled to a 55-14 victory on a drizzly day at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

The Pirates set the tone early, driving to a first-and-goal at the Golden Eagles' 1-yard line. On third down, quarterback Shane Carden threw a fade pass to Justin Hardy. Despite a pass interference call when the USM defender was draped all over him, Hardy made a one-handed grab for a touchdown.

The Pirates scored on third down on their second drive into the red zone, with Carden evading pressure on a third-and-goal from the 11 to find Isaiah Jones wide open in the back of the end zone for a TD.

"It had been a huge emphasis this week in practice and meetings that you've got to finish these drives, you've got to get touchdowns and that we can't settle for field goals," said junior quarterback Shane Carden. "We focused on just finishing plays and doing a lot better in the red zone, taking what they were giving us.

"It was very gratifying (to score the early touchdowns). It always feels better when you get touchdowns instead of bringing the kicker out there and getting field goals. It feels great to get back on track and do what we've been before the last couple of games."

The TDs just came on coming - with ECU (5-2, 3-1 Conference USA) scoring touchdowns on seven of its first 10 possessions to open up a 55-0 lead. Southern Miss (0-6, 0-2), once a perennial power in the league, simply could not keep up with the Pirates as it lost its 18th-straight game.

Carden finished 30-for-37 passing for 308 yards and three touchdowns and added a 1-yard sneak for a score before taking a seat midway through the third quarter with the Pirates up 45-0 as the reserves finished it up.

Hardy had a huge day, catching 10 passes for 126 yards (all in the first half). He caught his 21st career TD pass, tying Larry Shannon (1994-97) for second on the ECU career touchdown reception list, and moving within one of record-holder Lance Lewis (22 TD catches from 2010-11). Hardy also returned four punts for a career-best 105 yards, his career-long 66-yard return to the Southern Miss 5-yard line setting up ECU's fifth touchdown.

Hardy, like Carden, was glad to see the Pirates come out hot and get into the end zone early.

"It was real big," Hardy said. "We knew we didn't do as well as we wanted to in the red zone against Tulane last week. We put a lot of emphasis on it and all the guys were focused."

Hardy caught at least three passes for the 30th-straight game and continued to be the go-to guy for the Pirates in what has become a very deep and effective receiving corps, despite the group being hit hard by injuries and recent suspensions.

"Me and Shane came in together and it helps us out on the field," Hardy said. "We know each other like the back of our hand, so it works out real well."

Jones, a true freshman, and sophomore Bryce Williams also had touchdown catches for the Pirates - who finished with 354 passing yards and 476 total yards while holding the Golden Eagles to 233 yards of offense.

"I was proud of our preparation this week," ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. "We did a good job of executing and taking it from the (practice) field to the game. I thought we started fast and took advantage of some big third-down opportunities and the defense did a good job of making some stops.

"It was one of the best performances of all three sides playing together as one. It's what we had been aiming for. The offense was feeding off the defense and the defense was feeding off the offense, and the special teams was the glue holding it together."

ECU converted 11 of 17 third-down opportunities. Against Tulane they were just 4-for-16. The Pirates' defense got an interception from senior safety Damon Magazu, who had a pick for the third-straight game and seven tackles for loss, including three sacks. ECU held Southern Miss to three first downs in the first half and 12 for the game.

The Pirates shut out the Golden Eagles until two late touchdowns scored against a defense made up mostly of reserves.

"I was proud of the defense," McNeill said. "I thought they did a great job of making adjustments. Late in the game, I didn't want anybody to get hurt. I know some people wanted the shutout. But that means absolutely nothing to me. It's about getting the kids reps and winning the football game."

East Carolina's 55 points were the most by a Pirate team in the series and the 41-point victory margin was ECU's second highest in the series (48 is largest in a 48-0 ECU victory in 1976). The Pirates won for the fourth time in their last five meetings with the Golden Eagles.

The 39-game series, which began in 1951, is ECU's longest-running against any opponent, but Saturday's blowout was likely the last regular-season meeting between the schools. Southern Miss is staying in Conference USA next season, while the Pirates will move to the American Athletic Conference.

It was a big win from a psychological standpoint, coming on the heels of a tough loss and with the Pirates heading into their second and final bye week of the season.

"The bye weeks fell perfectly for us," McNeill said. "I am looking forward to being able to coach them up next week and give them a head start on the rest of the opponents. It always feels good to go into a bye week with a win."

And for the Pirates' offense, it felt good to put six points up on the board with regularity on Saturday.

"We always want to start fast," running back Vintavious Cooper said. "For us, the mentality is to start out fast and not look back.

"We wanted to be done with field goals. Coach said the only time he wanted (to have the kicker come on the field) was for extra points. That is what we look forward to doing."

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