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Johnson, Grove Lead Pirates Past Mountaineers, 35-13

Go Tigers! Andrew Bodenheimer
Go Tigers!
Andrew Bodenheimer
Go Tigers!

Sept. 1, 2012

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by Bill Woodward
ECUPirates.com

GREENVILLE, N.C.- An opportunistic defense and special teams kept East Carolina even with Appalachian State for nearly three quarters.

Then a very special play by kick returner Lance Ray sent the Pirates on the way to a 35-13 victory over the Mountaineers on Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in their season-opening football game.

Appalachian State had just pulled within 14-13 on a 41-yard field goal when Ray took the ensuing kickoff at the 10-yard line, cut toward the right sideline, shook a few tacklers and cut back across the field for a 90-yard touchdown return.

From that point on, it was all Pirates.

"You talk about special teams being a game-changing opportunity," East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. "He had some good blocking, but he made the kind of individual [moves] we have seen him make."

Ray, a junior college transfer, made an immediate impact in his first game for the Pirates.

"When he came to the sideline, he said, `Coach that is what you brought me here for,'" McNeill said. "I said, `Yeah.' It was not in a bragging way, but humble. I thought that was a game-changing play for us. It gave us momentum. To get that touchdown was fantastic."

Following the kickoff return, ECU's offense began to click. After moving the ball early but seeing drives stall, quarterback Rio Johnson passed for a 4-yard touchdown and ran for a 6-yard as the Pirates scored the final 21 points of the game.

"I like the way even though some tough things happened, we maintained our poise," McNeill said. "You can't be impatient. When the kids have worked hard and invested the way this team has, it will come out for the good and I thought it did."

Appalachian State had the statistical edge early, but the ECU defense came up with a pair of first-half fumble recoveries that proved crucial.

With the Pirates down 7-0 early in the second quarter, Chip Thompson scooped up a fumble and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown. Then junior safety had to wait out a replay, which upheld the ruling on the field.

"I wasn't sure it was a fumble but I picked it up and ran anyway," Thompson said. "I was just praying that it would count. I didn't even see it pop out. I just it saw it sitting on the ground and picked it up."

Appalachian State quarterback Jamal Jackson passed for 300 yards (going 23-for-40) but threw an interception. His only touchdown was a 4-yard rush for ASU's first score.

"Defensively, I thought we did some positive things," McNeill said. "[ASU] had a good play here or there but I thought they really did a good job of stepping up and keeping them out of the end zone for the most part."

The ECU special teams helped the offense on more than one occasion. A 43-yard punt return by Justin Hardy gave the Pirates a first down at the ASU 17 midway through the second quarter and Johnson completed a three-play drive with an 11-yard pass over the middle to Andrew Bodenheimer.

The point-after made it 14-7. The Pirates led 14-10 at halftime and took charge in the second half after Ray's big play.

Johnson, a junior who was making his first start after winning a battle for the starting job, settled in as the game went on - finishing 28-43 for 242 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He threw a first-half interception and missed a couple of passes early, but got into a groove in the second half.

"I like the fact that Rio on the sideline, if you could see his demeanor and poise, never wavered," McNeill said. "On the field, I thought he ran the team efficiently. During the middle of the game, being able to make adjustments and take it from the sideline to the field is hard. He did a good job of staying poised and keeping his group focused."

The running game contributed 153 yards to the 390 yards of total offense. McNeill was happy with the balance.

"They had a plan of running the football, staying balanced," McNeill said. "I was really proud of the way the offense maintained and the defense just kept coming on."

Michael Dobson led the way wi2th 78 yards on 19 carries and Reggie Bullock had 31 yards on eight carries before having some cramping issues on the sweltering afternoon. McNeill plans to use a rotation of running backs, but Dodson was the workhorse Saturday.

"I feel like I can be an every-down kind of back," Dobson said. "But not taking away anything from the other guys. We all worked hard. We're all good and we all can make plays."

For the FCS Mountaineers, who gave the Pirates a scare in their last meeting before losing 29-24, it was a case of mistakes and big plays by the ECU special teams taking a heavy toll.

"We had a few bad things happen to us in the kicking game, special teams," said ASU coach Jerry Moore. "I don't think 35-13 is any indicator of what kind of football team we could be."

McNeill, an assistant under Moore at Appalachian State from 1989-91 and 1993-96, said both teams had a chance at being good.

"[ASU] came in and hung tough," McNeill said. "That is going to be a good football team. I think we have a chance to be a good football team if we maintain our focus and keep working."

And keep playing the kind of opportunistic football the Pirates displayed on Saturday.