HOUSTON, Texas – East Carolina head coach Mike Houston cannot remember a more frustrating loss than what transpired Saturday night in Rice Stadium.
The Pirates, playing their American Athletic Conference on a sultry night before a sparse crowd, saw chance after chance produce little to nothing through three quarters then could not capitalize on three possessions in the final six minutes and fell 24-17.
Despite churning out a decided advantage in nearly every offensive category, ECU managed just three first-half field goals and a lone second-half touchdown while turning the ball over four times on downs and once on an interception. One drive ended at the Rice one with the Owls clinging to a 10-9 lead.
“We just had too many missed opportunities to win it.” Houston said. “You’re going to be able to look back at several big plays where we had a chance and couldn’t make the play, and that’s the difference in winning and losing.”
ECU, 1-4 for the third time in seven years, dropped its third game this season in which it led or shared the lead in the second half. Junior defensive lineman Chad Stephens, who had 2.5 of the Pirates’ nine tackles for loss, said “the little things” need to be corrected before an Oct. 12 game against SMU.
“Going into the bye week we’re just going to focus on those little things, get healthy and come back and get the next one.”
ECU did essentially what it needed to win the first meeting with Rice since 2010 when both were members of Conference USA but simply could not convert opportunities into touchdowns. The Pirates outgained the Owls (3-2, 1-1 AAC) 391-277 while also putting up a big advantage in first downs (25-14), plays (83-54) rushing yards (145-37) and time of possession (34:58-25:02).
Freshmen Javious Bond and Chase Sowell turned in breakout performances to help keep ECU’s hopes flickering. Bond had a team high on the ground for the second straight week, finishing with 72 yards on seven carries, and Sowell put up personal bests of seven catches for 88 yards and also hauled in a game-tying two-point conversion with 8:24 to play.
Quarterback Alex Flinn set career highs for completions (21), attempts (44) and passing yards (246) but connected on just one of his last seven passes and threw his fifth interception of the year.
“We did some good things and then at the same time, you obviously had a costly interception,” Houston said. “You’ve got to get a little more consistency not only with his play, but we had too many drops. You had some big drops tonight.”
ECU’s defense, meanwhile, help Rice well below its season averages of 4-5.8 yards and 35.3 points but did surrender five plays of at least 24 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown off a screen pass the proved to be the game-winner.
Quarterback J.T. Daniels, who has had stops at USC, Georgia and West Virginia, battled through an ankle injury and completed 18 of 32 passes for 232 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The Pirates shut out leading receiver Luke McCaffrey in the first half. He finished with three receptions for 44 yards, including a key 33-yard catch to set up a third-quarter touchdown.
“We bracketed him most of the night,” Houston said. “I thought our kids played really hard and did a good job with our plan there.”
ECU trailed 10-9 at the half, settling for three Andrew Conrad field goals, despite outgaining the Owls 205-89. Conrad, who had converted four of seven attempts coming in, knocked through field goals of 35, 27 and 38 yards after three scoring threats fizzled. Another drive reached the 18 before a holding penalty and an interception.
Tim Horn countered Conrad’s first field goal with a 41-yarder to tie it at 3-3. A 4-yard pass from Daniels to Rawson MacNeil made it 10-3 before Conrad brought ECU within 10-9 at the half.
Flinn directed an impressive drive to start the third quarter, throwing passes of 12 yards to Sowell, 17 to Shane Calhoun and 34 to Jsi Hatfield, but Rice stuffed the Pirates on consecutive plays from the 1 to take over on downs.
The Owls dug out of the hole by driving 55 yards and milking five minutes off the clock before punting. Their next possession resulted in a touchdown and a 17-9 lead when backup quarterback Chase Jenkins weaved and spun in from the 4.
ECU answered with its longest touchdown drive of the year to pull even, covering 80 yards in 17 plays and consuming 7:19. Flinn converted a pair of third-and-10 throws and Rahjai Harris picked up 21 on a third-and-3.
A pass interference penalty at the goal line kept the drive alive, and Harris bulled in on third down. Flinn’s toss to Sowell, who leaped to make a contested catch tied it at 17-17.
The Pirates’ momentum lasted briefly, however. Rice quickly regained the lead in just four plays, forging ahead when Landon Ransom-Goelz took a bubble screen along the left sideline and scampered 44 yards for his first career touchdown.
ECU would get three final chances but could not cash in. Josh Pearcy’s jarring hit at the Rice 29 stopped Sowell four yards short on fourth down. The Pirates turned it over again at their own 24 when the next possession gained nothing.
After Horn missed a 42-yard field goal attempt and a Rice penalty, ECU got last shot from its 39. A pass to Jhari Paterson moved the ball to midfield, but two incompletions and a pair of sacks ended ECU’s hopes of an AAC opening win.
“We’re all going to look at this and find plays that we could have made, should have made,” Houston said. “But the big thing is we’ve got to keep pushing ourselves to improve so we make those plays and make those correct decisions. Right now, we’ve got to stick together.
“I thought the kids played very hard. There’s no doubt they wanted to come in here and win this ball game. We had a good week of preparation, The desire is there, the want-to is there. We’ve got to make the plays when we have opportunities to make the plays.”