GREENVILLE, N.C. – An impressive offensive outburst in the first half equaled a big win for East Carolina in its 2020 season finale as the Pirates posted a 52-38 American Athletic Conference victory over SMU Saturday afternoon at a sun-splashed Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The offensive output marked the highest of the Mike Houston era and the most for ECU against an AAC opponent since a 55-point effort against Connecticut in 2018.
The Pirates (3-6, 3-5 AAC) picked up their first victory over the Mustangs (7-3, 4-3 AAC) since 2015 and notched consecutive wins over league opponents for the first time since beating Tulane and Tulsa back in 2014. Additionally, last week’s win over Temple and today’s victory mark the first time ECU has not trailed – from start to finish – against FBS foes in two-straight games since 2013.
Entering the contest averaging over 400 yards of total offense against AAC teams, ECU finished Saturday’s outing with a season-high 493 while tallying a campaign second-best 333 passing yard outing. SMU finished with 384 yards of offense, but the Pirates limited the visitors to just 70 on the ground after the Mustangs entered the game averaging 188.3.
Junior quarterback Holton Ahlers put together an efficient performance, completing 20-of-29 pass attempts for 298 yards and four touchdowns against no interceptions. Sophomore receiver Blake Proehl was on the end of six of those completions, resulting in 152 yards and two scores. True freshman running back Keaton Mitchell closed the book on an impressive rookie season with 68 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown.
SMU quarterback Shane Buechele connected on 35-of-50 pass attempts for 314 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Austin Upshaw recorded eight catches for a team-best 78 yards, while Tyler Lavine rushed the ball six times for 34 yards and two touchdowns.
East Carolina started brightly on defense, stopping the Mustangs on a third-and-short play at midfield and forcing an early punt. The Pirates started the ensuing drive at their own 20 and seemingly stalled out at the 37. However, punter Luke Larsen executed a fake punt to perfection, tucking the ball and rushing 25 yards for a first down. Three plays later, Mitchell took it nine yards into the endzone to put the Pirates up 7-0 early.
ECU came up with another huge stop on SMU’s next possession, stopping the visitors cold on fourth and one at the Mustang 34. In just under a minute, Ahlers hit Proehl with an 11-yard touchdown toss and the Pirates moved in front by two scores with 7:07 on the clock.
SMU pulled within seven with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that took nearly four minutes off the clock, but East Carolina responded right back. With the Pirates sitting at the Mustang 35, sophomore receiver Tyler Snead took the ball on a designed play and slung it to a wide-open Proehl who walked into the endzone. After the extra point on what would be the final play of the opening quarter, ECU found itself ahead 21-7.
Freshman defensive back David Laney came up with a big play early in the second stanza, forcing a fumble by SMU receiver Judah Bell which sophomore linebacker Jireh Wilson recovered and returned 39 yards to the Mustang 32. After just three plays, sophomore receiver C.J. Johnson corralled the ball in the corner of the endzone for a 14-yard touchdown grab that extended the Pirate lead to 28-7.
The East Carolina defense kept the pressure on, forcing a quick three and out and taking over at its own 40. Seven plays later, Mitchell hauled in a seven-yard touchdown throw from Ahlers to leave the Pirates with a 35-7 advantage with 6:16 remaining in the half. A 16-yard score by Snead and a 29-yard field goal by senior kicker Jake Verity finished off the impressive opening half for ECU as it took a seemingly insurmountable 45-7 cushion into the locker room.
The 45 points scored by the Pirates in the opening half represented the most in the first 30 minutes of an American Athletic Conference contest, easily beating the 34 ECU scored against Connecticut back on Nov. 17, 2018, and eclipsing the 40-point mark for the first time since dropping 42 on Akron Oct. 5, 1991.
The Pirates rolled up 337 yards of total offense in the first two quarters, including 144 on the ground, while limiting SMU to 176. The Mustangs committed six of the seven penalties called, costing them 64 yards, and coughed up the ball twice on the ground.
SMU began to rally out of the break, out-scoring ECU 17-0 in the third quarter to slice the Pirate lead to 45-24. Buechele posted one of the scores on a one-yard quarterback keeper with 8:12 showing on the clock before he found Ulysses Bentley IV from 26 yards out less than four minutes later. Chris Naggar capped the scoring in the third with a successful 36-yard field goal.
East Carolina put together a crucial drive to begin the fourth quarter, going 75 yards down the field. Following a big 37-yard Ahlers to Proehl connection that set the Pirates up in Mustang territory, junior running back Darius Pinnix punched it in from two yards away a couple of plays later to stop the SMU run and leave ECU with a 52-24 edge.
The Mustangs made one last push as Lavine scored a pair of rushing touchdowns within a matter of 23 seconds – the second of which occurred following a muffed kickoff return that set SMU up at the Pirate 14 with 7:05 remaining.
With East Carolina driving in Mustang territory in a final attempt to put the game away, SMU was the beneficiary of a Jsi Hatfield fumble that extended its hopes of completing the comeback. It would not be, however, as sophomore cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian came up with a pair of crucial interceptions to stop the Mustangs dead in their tracks. SMU would not threaten again as ECU was able to run down all but 15 seconds of the clock.