Carden Leads East Carolina Over Old Dominion, 52-38

UABSPORTS.COM Freshman Davon Grayson caught three touchdown passes in collegiate debut
Freshman Davon Grayson caught three touchdown passes in collegiate debut

Aug 31, 2013

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By Bill Woodward

GREENVILLE, N.C. - East Carolina's football team opened Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium's 50th-anniversary season on Saturday night. Junior quarterback Shane Carden and the Pirates' offense turned in a performance worthy of the moment.

Carden passed for a school-record 447 yards and five touchdowns, completing 46 of 54 passes without an interception. The offense put up 52 points as the Pirates won a shootout against Old Dominion, 52-38, in front of a crowd of 44,597.

Old Dominion, an FCS team making the transition to FBS, won 11 games last season as it made it to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke won the Payton Award, the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy, in 2012 -- passing for an FCS-record 5,076 yards and 44 touchdowns as a sophomore.

For three quarters, it looked as if the last team with the ball would win the game. The Pirates clung to a 35-31 lead to begin the fourth quarter, but Carden completed touchdown passes to a pair of true freshmen - Isaiah Jones and Davon Grayson - as the Pirates put up 14-straight points to go in front 49-31 and finally take command of the game.

"I was proud of the way we hung in there," East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. "The first game is always tough anyway. I was very proud of our group.

"We watched film and we knew Taylor (Heinicke) is a great quarterback who does a great job of extending plays. He did a good job, but our team hung together."

The Pirates needed every bit of offense they could muster against the Monarchs, but it was a defensive play on the first series of the second half that helped turn the tide.

Old Dominion, down 21-17 after ECU finished off the first half with a picture-perfect drive that ended with a touchdown on the final play, took the opening kickoff in the third quarter. On third-and-3 from the ODU 32, Heinicke was hit from behind by ECU's Gabe Woullard. The ball was jarred loose and Ty Holmes picked it up and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown.

"I was happy with the fumble recovery," McNeill said. "We needed that. We need to contain the quarterback better, but the kids kept fighting and never lost confidence.

"Our defense made some plays, but there is still some room to work. We have a short week and have to make those adjustments quickly."

The Pirates have a Thursday night game against Florida Atlantic up next on the schedule. Thanks in large part to Carden's record night, they will be looking to go 2-0.

Carden, who emerged as the starter at quarterback last season after first losing a preseason battle with Rio Johnson, was at his best against the Monarchs. He broke his own school record of 439 yards passing set in a 65-59 double-overtime victory over Marshall in the regular season finale a year ago.

The five touchdown passes tied his career high (set against Memphis) and the school record equaled on four other occassions. Junior receiver Justin Hardy tied his school record for receptions in a game with 16 (for 191 yards). Grayson caught four passes, with three going for touchdowns, and Danny Webster (8 catches for 79 yards) had the other TD catch.

"People were worried about our receiver depth," McNeill said. "But I think we answered that tonight."

The Pirates threw the ball 52 times and ran it 22 times for just 34 yards. McNeill prefers a more balanced attack, but the passing game was his ticket to a victory on Saturday.

ECU came out throwing, mostly short passes to the outside, and moved right down the field to go up 7-0. Carden was 8-for-8 on the opening drive for 71 yards, capping the drive with a 4-yard TD toss to Webster and setting the tone for the evening.

"We just wanted to establish ourselves (offensively) and spread things out," McNeill said. "We saw some places where we had some advantages and capitalized on them. That is really as simple as it is. Just move the chains any way you can."

For the defense, it was a long night of chasing Heinicke. The shifty quarterback completed 38 of 51 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 52 yards and a fourth score.

"That offense did a great job," ECU safety Damon Magazu said of the Monarchs. "(Heinicke is) a great athlete, a great quarterback. We've been preparing for him but it is hard to simulate how good a quarterback is in practice. He did a great job tonight, but we came out with a win and that is what's important."

After the Pirates' first score, the Monarchs led on two occasions in the first half - at 10-7 and 17-14. But ECU simply had too many weapons and their superior depth showed late in the game.

The Pirates played a turnover-free game, getting a break when Jimmy Booth recovered a Vintavious Cooper fumble in the end zone for a touchdown that gave the Pirates a 35-24 lead.

"I thought we beat ourselves in the first half with penalties," McNeill said. "But I was pleased with the way our offense played. They never hung their head.

"I'll take the win."