NEW ORLEANS – Too many critical mistakes against a quality team playing on its home turf added up a momentum-draining loss for East Carolina on Saturday afternoon.
The Pirates committed two crucial first-half penalties, threw a pair of second-half interceptions and continued to struggle on special teams with a couple of missed kicks in a 24-9 setback to Tulane on a warm and windy afternoon at Yulman Stadium.
The Green Wave pitched a shutout the final 42:08 in remaining unbeaten in American Athletic Conference play at 2-0 and improving to 5-1 overall. The Pirates, looking to build on last week’s 48-28 rout of South Florida, drop to 3-3 overall and 1-2 in the AAC with consecutive home games against Memphis and UCF coming up.
“They made the plays and we didn’t,” fourth-year ECU head coach Mike Houston said. “That’s the disappointing thing. We had our opportunities all day. It’s frustrating. I thought we played hard, but we just made some mistakes that you just can’t make in a tight ballgame.”
For nearly every error the Pirates made, Tulane made them pay.
The first came on ECU’s second drive and wiped a touchdown off the board. Quarterback Holton Ahlers zipped a nine-yard pass to Ryan Jones, who came into the game with touchdown catches in four consecutive games, but a penalty for an ineligible man downfield wiped it out.
ECU instead settled for a 27-yard Owen Daffer field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Another penalty on the ensuing possession handed the Green Wave the lead. After Jha’Quan Johnson’s 46-yard reception set Tulane up at the 10, the Pirates stymied three plays to apparently force a field goal, but an unsportsmanlike conduct flag on Xavier Smith provided new life.
Two plays later, quarterback Michael Pratt rolled right and flipped a two-yard pass to Tyrick James for a 7-3 lead.
ECU’s ongoing kicking woes the surfaced again. A 24-yard pass from Ahlers to C.J. Johnson capped a five-play drive that propelled the Pirates back in front 9-7, but Daffer missed the PAT.
The sophomore kicker, who has now failed on five PAT kicks and a pair of game-deciding field goals, also misfired on a 46-yard attempt to end the half.
Tulane took the lead for a good with a time-consuming, 16-play drive that ended with a five-yard Pratt scamper for a 14-9 lead.
The Green Wave cashed in two Ahlers interceptions into 10 second-half points. ECU’s final eight possessions after the second-quarter score resulted in three punts, two turnovers, a missed field goal, turning the ball over on downs, then ending the game at the Tulane 22.
“Tulane’s a good football team,” Houston said. “They did a great job of executing. I thought Pratt made the big plays down the field in the passing game. I thought their defense did a good job of bend but don’t break. They played to keep everything underneath them, so hats off to them. They won the ballgame.”
Pratt, despite being sacked five times in the second half, took the upper hand in the battle of veteran quarterbacks. The junior from Boca Raton, Fla., who sat out an overtime win over Houston with an injury, completed 27 of 34 passes for 326 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Six of his completions gained at least 20 yards, including consecutive throws of 33 and 44 yards to Duece Watts to put the Green Wave in the end zone following Larry Brooks’ first interception of the year.
Ahlers, pressured often but never sacked, connected on 32 of 51 passes for 288 yards. He now has 12,039 career passing yards to move past Shane Carden as the school’s all-time leader. He also now stands first in pass attempts with 1,614.
“I think he did some good things, and I think he made some mistakes,” Houston said of his fifth-year senior quarterback. “I don’t think it’s his best game in his career, and I don’t think it’s his worst. I would say his day’s probably a lot like our team’s. You’ve got to play cleaner, can’t make some of those mistakes and have to execute better if we want to win these big ballgames.”
ECU’s offense lacked some of its firepower with running back Rahjai Harris and receiver Jalen Johnson out with injuries. Running back Keaton Mitchell returned after missing one-plus games with a hip pointer, but never ripped off one of his signature plays.
Mitchell alternated possessions with freshman Marlon Gunn Jr. until Gunn suffered a minor injury. Mitchell finished with 47 yards rushing on 10 carries and caught eight passes for 57 yards while Gunn gained a team and career-high 67 yards on seven carries. He added three catches for 25 yards.
Tulane’s physical secondary blanketed ECU’s receivers and allowed only two completions more than 20 yards.
“They were showing us drastically different looks every single snap,” Houston said. “They were taking away anything down the field for the most part and forcing the ball underneath and to the sidelines. It had to be a game where you had to have some patience and had to execute at a high level, and we didn’t do a good enough job.”
The Pirates get a chance to change that next Saturday when Memphis comes to town for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The Tigers let a 26-7 lead slip away and fell 33-32 to Houston on Friday.
“We have to grow from this, we have to learn from this,” Houston said. “It’s frustrating because some mistakes you see repeated, you just can’t repeat them.”