East Carolina Tops Middle Tennessee, 24-17
Oct. 05, 2013
By Bill Woodward
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - A week after a signature victory at North Carolina that ended a 38-year string of frustration, East Carolina's football team needed more than a little grit to score a Conference USA victory against Middle Tennessee State.
The Pirates (4-1, 2-0 C-USA) overcame the loss of leading rusher Vintavious Cooper late in the first quarter, relying on the arm of quarterback Shane Carden and the running of reserves Chris Hairston and Breon Allen to defeat the Blue Raiders (3-3, 1-1) by a 24-17 score.
Cooper, who rushed for a career-high 186 yards against UNC last week, scored the first Pirates touchdown, capping a 75-yard drive by ECU on the opening possession of the game with a 1-yard run. But later in the first quarter with the score tied at 7-7, Cooper left the game after a hard hit on a 2-yard run, which caused a fumble that was recovered by the Blue Raiders.
Cooper had concussion-like symptoms and was held out of the rest of the game.
"When a great teammate and a great friend like that goes down, it's hard," said Carden, who completed 43 of 57 passes for 365 yards and a touchdown. "But Hairston and Breon stepped up and did a great job for us. They get in there and there is no hesitancy."
Hairston rushed for 94 yards on 18 carries and Allen had 28 yards on seven carries - all career-highs for each back.
In the end, with the score tied at 17-17 early in the fourth quarter, it came down to Carden finding his favorite receiver. On a third-and-2 from the Middle Tennessee 21, Carden hit Hardy inside the 5-yard line and Hardy fought into the end zone to put the Pirates up 24-17 with 13:31 remaining.
"That was a routine play," Carden said. "(Hardy) is the second read on that. He did a great job of getting behind the linebacker, made the catch and found a way to get into the end zone. When we make routine plays, we score points."
And, Carden said, that was the story of the game for the Pirates - finding a way to get things done. They didn't hang their heads when the failed to score on the final play of the first half, when Carden was stopped at the goal line as the clock ran out. They just got back to win in the final 30 minutes and picked up an important conference victory on the road.
"This was a huge win," Carden said. "You know that if you are going to win championships, you have to win tough road games in your conference. This was a very tough road game. We knew it was going to be physical coming in and it was a very physical game.
"We never held our head. We kept fighting until the end. We were driving the ball great but when we get in the red zone, we have to score on those."
After the Pirates went up 24-17, Damon Magazu made a big defensive play, intercepting MTSU quarterback Logan Kilgore (28-for-37 for 245 yards). Magazu broke in front of the intended receiver and went high to make the Pirates' second interception of the game.
"I saw (Kilgore) looking that way and when I saw his hand go up, I just broke on the ball," Magazu said. "When the plays come to you, you have to make them."
For the Pirates, there was still some work to do after the interception. And they responded by going on a long drive that ate up the final four-and-half minutes of the game. Starting at their 30, the Pirates converted three third-down plays to move to the Raiders' 25 where they were able to take a knee a couple of times and run out the clock.
"That drive at the end to run out the clock and get to the victory formation, that speaks to what our team is all about," Carden said. "We may not play great the whole game, but we are going to figure out a way to win."
The Pirates won for the fourth time in their past five C-USA road games - on a day when there was concern of a letdown after ECU defeated UNC at Chapel Hill last week for the first time since 1975.
Not so, Carden said.
"Last week was a great win for the university," the junior quarterback said. "But our goal is to win this conference. As great as beating North Carolina is, that doesn't go toward winning this conference. We knew that this would be a huge game for us. There was a lot of talk that we might not come out with enough energy, but that is not us. That is not who we are."
After rolling up 603 total yards of offense at UNC, the Pirates offense again was able to move the ball - amassing 511 yards on 98 plays, just three plays less than their school-record 101 against UNC. The Pirates were an eye-popping 17-for-23 on third-down conversions, but still had to battle until the end when the offense controlled the fourth quarter.
"It was a fist fight," East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. "We knew that coming into the game. They have a really good football team and we knew that. We've got a pretty good football team as well. I knew after last week's win that it was going to be emotional and that we would be coming into a tough environment."
Cooper's injury would be evaluated further, McNeill said.
"We hated to lose Tay," McNeill added. "We want to make sure that he is OK. If they doctors release him, he'll play then. But we'll know more later.
For East Carolina on Saturday, it was about getting the job done. A week after a monumental victory for the program, on a day when their top running back went out early, the Pirates got it done.
"You are going to have those kinds of games," Magazu said. "It's great to come out on top anytime. But when you have wins like that, it's great to see that your team doesn't stop and they don't quit. We kept working and we got the win."