GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Despite virtually no offensive production and little going its way for the bulk of four quarters, East Carolina still had a chance to escape with a victory Saturday afternoon against Charlotte.
When Andrew Conrad’s 48-yard field goal attempt sailed wide of the left upright with 34 seconds showing, the final hope vanished as the 49ers escaped with a 10-7 win. The loss on a beautiful but breezy fall afternoon left a Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium crowd of 39,842 disappointed on Homecoming and Hall of Fame weekend. More importantly, it dropped the Pirates to 1-6 overall and 0-3 in the American Athletic Conference.
For Charlotte, it marked the 10-year program’s first win as a new AAC member and raised its record to 2-5 overall.
“I thought that it would be a close game,” fifth-year ECU head coach Mike Houston said. “They’ve been in a lot of those just like us this year. We had our opportunities. We did not play great in the first half. We’ve got to do a better job there. I thought the kids, the second half, played very hard to give us a chance. But we were not able to convert and take advantage of some opportunities.”
ECU’s limited opportunities before the final drive came via a couple of crucial Charlotte turnovers. Julius Wood’s second-quarter interception and 29-yard return, along with a 15-yard penalty, set the Pirates up at the 49ers’ 13. But three plays netted only six yards, and Conrad banged a 24-yard field goal attempt off the right upright.
ECU scored its only touchdown after a muffed punt at the 10, which Kingston McKinstry recovered. Quarterback Alex Flinn, who came on in relief in the second half, fired a 10-yard pass to Shane Calhoun to get ECU within 10-7.
The Pirates still had life after Jake Larson missed a 45-yard field goal attempt – his second miss of the game – and a three-and-out series. ECU took over with 2:29 left and quickly marched to the Charlotte 29 before Michigan transfer Eyabi Okie-Anoma dropped Flinn for an 8-yard loss.
Conrad came on after a 6-yard pass on third down but could not knock through the game-tying kick.
“We’ve got to do a great job there,” Houston said. “We had the field position to at least have a field goal attempt. I think we were well within his range. We’ve got to be better in that situation right there. I hate that it all came down to that one situation, but we had a shot right there. Obviously, we’ve got to improve.”
The 49ers, sparked by quarterback Jalon Jones, amassed 323 total yards and held onto the ball for 41:15 of the 60 minutes. But they self-destructed time and again with nine penalties for 90 yards, two turnovers and the two missed field goals.
The Pirates mustered just 49 total yards in the first half and 127 yards for the game – the fewest ever allowed by Charlotte and the lowest output for an ECU offense since 104 against N.C. State in 2018. ECU averaged just 2.5 yards per play, finished with 10 first downs, rushed for 39 yards and converted only two of 14 third-down attempts.
“They’ve stymied a lot of people this year in the run game,” Houston said of the 49ers’ defense. “That’s a good front that we’re facing – good front and good linebackers. I didn’t think that we responded very good in the first half, and that made it difficult. We just need to do a better job of coaching the kids and preparing them for that and do a better job of giving ourselves a shot there.”
Mason Garcia, relegated to a backup role the last four games, started at quarterback and played the entire first half and first series of the second. He completed just 4 of 14 passes for 19 yards and gained 12 yards on five rushes.
Houston said he felt Garcia was ready to step back into the starting role after a good week of practice.
“Boy he had a great Thursday,” Houston said. “It was really sharp. And he’s in a good place. We all see the talent right there, and he’s a phenomenal young man. I’m going to support him, and I’m going to help him all that I can.”
Flinn provided a brief spark in the second half and hit on 11 of 18 passes for 69 yards but faced constant pressure from the Charlotte rush.
“I felt like Alex, at that point, gave us the best chance to win the ballgame, and he did respond and did some really good things,” Houston said. “He had some stuff that he’s got to improve on also.”
Jones, a senior transfer from Bethune Cookman, gave the 49ers a lift after sitting out last week’s 14-0 loss to Navy. He craftily ran the option, finishing with career highs in both carries (26) and yards (127). He also completed 11 of 18 passes for 144 yards to account for all but 52 of Charlotte’s total yards.
“You can see why he was as highly recruited as he was,” Houston said. “He’s a special talent. I think he played really well today.”
Charlotte scored on its opening drive, taking a 3-0 lead on a 35-yard field goal by Lawson after a review ruled a lateral as a forward pass and backed up Charlotte from the 4.
Jones scored from the 1 on the opening drive of the second half for a 10-0 lead. The 49ers wasted several chances to put the Pirates away from there, but ECU failed to take the gift.
The Pirates have five games remaining, including three on the road.
“The one thing is it’s my job to get it fixed, and that’s one thing I told the kids in there in the locker room,” Houston said. “We’re not going to start pointing fingers, we’re not going to start trying to find someone to blame. It’s my responsibility to take care of things, so I’ve got to look at everything and I’ve got to make the decisions that are best to give our program a shot to be successful.”