East Carolina Tops Florida Atlantic in C-USA Opener, 31-13

UABSPORTS.COM Justin Hardy hauls down his 18th career touchdown against Florida Atlantic Thursday night.
Justin Hardy hauls down his 18th career touchdown against Florida Atlantic Thursday night.

Sep 5, 2013

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By Bill Woodward

GREENVILLE, N.C. - Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium was painted black on Thursday night, and the color scheme worked out just fine for East Carolina's football team.

The Pirates wore all- black uniforms for the time in program history and the fans came dressed in black. Florida Atlantic was on the other end of the spectrum, wearing white, and also on the wrong end of a methodical 31-13 ECU victory.

East Carolina picked up its second victory in five days to start the season 2-0 for the first time since 2010, winning its Conference USA opener against FAU - which was playing its first game as a C-USA member.

"(The short week) was a great challenge for our team," East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. "We had planned on it since June, from practice, from fall camp, anticipating this short week. It was really a man-up effort by our group to face a team like Old Dominion that stretched the field on us and come back with a short window."

There was a different feel on Thursday night than in the opener against ODU, which featured the FCS Player-of-the-Year from 2012 in quarterback Taylor Heinicke and ran a fast-break offense that stretched the ECU defense.

Forced to match that tempo, Pirates quarterback Shane Carden threw the ball 54 times for a school-record 447 yards and five touchdowns in a 52-38 victory. Against FAU, the running game and defense both played a big part in the victory.

Vintavious Cooper rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown, and also was the Pirates' leading receiver with five catches for 49 yards. Carden was nearly as efficient as he was in the opener (when he was 48-for-54), completing 17 of 25 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns. For the second-straight week, Carden did not throw an interception.

"I just want to do what this team needs me to do," Carden said. "That is what it is all about, doing whatever it takes to win. I'm not out there trying to get stats, trying to throw the ball around. If I don't have to throw it 50 times, I won't."

Defensively, the difference was obvious. East Carolina came up with three turnovers - two interceptions and a fumble recovery. And the swarming Pirates had six sacks, keeping the Owls (0-2) out of the end zone until the final four minutes of the game.

"(FAU) was a really athletic group and I thought we played well on defense, offense and special teams," McNeill said. "I'm really proud of our group."

East Carolina led 21-6 at halftime, getting a big lift from kick returner Lance Ray. After FAU kicked its second field goal to cut the Pirates' lead to 7-6 early in the second quarter, Ray took the ensuing kickoff at the three-yard line and raced 85 yards to the Owls' 12.

Carden hit Justin Hardy from a yard out for a touchdown giving ECU a 14-6 advantage.

Then the defense got into the act.

FAU quarterback Greg Hankerson's pass glanced off a receiver's hands and Maurice Falls snatched it out of the air and returned it to the Owls' 12. Cooper covered the distance in three carries, bursting over from the 7-yard line for a touchdown. The Pirates were up 21-6 and smelling victory.

"Turnovers were big," McNeill said. "If we can give our offense two or three extra possessions, and that is what we did tonight, it's big. All the turnovers were valuable.

"The defense just did a good job. I was very proud of them."

In the second half, ECU dominated.

Josh Hawkins' interception set up a 22-yard field goal that made it 24-6. The field goal came after an acrobatic play by Hardy was ruled an incomplete pass on second-and-goal from the five. Hardy went high to pull in a Carden pass with one hand in the end zone. He appeared to have possession when he came down, but as he stood up, the ball came loose. The official ruled it incomplete and the ruling stood after a review.

East Carolina's final touchdown came after the Pirates stopped FAU on a fourth-and-9 from the ECU 33.

The Pirates drove the 67 yards in nine plays, Chris Hairston going over from the four-yard line to cap the drive with 46 seconds left in the quarter.

It wasn't an artistic victory. The Pirates lost two fumbles and had seven penalties for 44 yards.

"It's great when you can learn some things and still win the game," Carden said. "We definitely left a lot of points out there. This offense has got to be a lot better about taking care of the ball and (eliminating) the penalties, the overall negative plays. We just kept hurting ourselves on drives. We just never could get that flow going."

Carden enjoyed the atmosphere. Black was just fine with him, cool in fact.

"When I first saw the black uniforms, I thought they were cool," Carden said. "I love wearing them. And I loved the black-out by the fans. Everyone bought into it. It was a very cool atmosphere."

Cooper, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, got more opportunities than he did in the opener and he took advantage, both on the ground and as a receiver.

"It felt great to be able to contribute and come out with the `W,' "Cooper said. "If you can catch the ball in open space, you can pick up a lot of yards and help your team. One of the keys to being a good running back is having good hands."

For McNeill, the penalties were a concern. But he was also pleased with the improvement his team made, particularly on defense, as the Pirates won their seventh consecutive C-USA home game.

"Any time we have penalties, I am not happy with that. We were one of the best teams in the country last year (in limiting penalties). The first thing I worry about is wins. If I have to correct one thing, it is penalties.

"But there is no such thing as an ugly win."

Especially one painted in black.