Carden and Cooper Lead ECU Past Houston, 48-28

UABSPORTS.COM Vintavious Cooper rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown.
Vintavious Cooper rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown.

Nov. 3, 2012

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By Bill Woodward

GREENVILLE, N.C. - East Carolina's football team bounced back from a tough loss in a big way on Saturday. All the way into a bowl game.

The Pirates became bowl-eligible when they notched their sixth victory of the season, a 48-28 over Houston at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Coming on the heels of a disappointing 56-28 loss at home to Navy last week, the victory was doubly sweet for Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill and his players.

"It was a tough week that they battled back from," McNeill said." I thought they showed a lot of character. I talked to our players in the locker room after the game about intestinal fortitude.

"I thought we showed that today."

The Pirates (6-4, 5-1 Conference USA) became bowl eligible for the sixth time in seven seasons.

"We still have a lot of season left, but to accomplish one of our goals was big," McNeill said. "We expect to be in bowls. We expect to be successful here, to do things the right way."

The Pirates started the game in the right way on both sides of the ball.

East Carolina's defense, which gave up more than 500 yards rushing to Navy last week, forced Houston (4-5, 3-2) to punt on its first five possessions of the game.

And the offense took full advantage, jumping to a 28-0 lead and utilizing a balanced attack that eventually produced 550 yards of offense (305 passing, 245 rushing) and maintained possession for 44 minutes of the game.

Shane Carden completed 31-of-43 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns, all in the first half, and Vintavious Cooper rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown to spark the offense. Danny Webster also had a big day with three touchdown catches, accounting for the Pirates' first three TDs.

It was a ball-control day for the Pirates, who ran off a season-high 98 plays on offense, an important stat against Houston, a potent offensive team that managed only 15:52 seconds of possession time.

"We expect to get a lot of plays," McNeill said. "The more comfortable that Shane [Carden] comes with the hurry-up offense, the more we will do that. We expect to get 80-plus plays.

"It can happen with this offense. It wasn't a plan for this game [to have a lot of possession time]. We just run plays and try to get first downs, touchdowns."

While the Pirates were balanced, the Cougars were forced into a one-dimensional game by the ECU defense. After getting battered on the ground by the Navy triple-option attack, the Pirates held Houston to just 28 rushing yards.

"I'm proud of our coaching staff for getting those guys to bounce back [on defense] and to formulate a game plan against a team that really works at a high execution level," McNeil said. "They did a great job of controlling them."

Houston quarterback David Piland, who was forced to pass 51 times, threw four touchdown passes, pulling the Cougars within 34-21 with his third TD pass of the game early in the third quarter.

Cooper, who posted his third consecutive 100-yard rushing game, answered with a 22-yard touchdown run and Ty Holmes returned an interception 28 yards for a score to push the margin back up to 48-21 and seal the outcome.

Cooper became the first Pirate back to top 100 yards in three straight games since Marvin Townes in 2003. Cooper was a workhorse for the offense, carrying the ball 33 times.

"Coming out and touching the ball 30 times a game was nothing new to me," said Cooper, a junior college transfer. "Whenever I get the ball in my hands, I want to get 5-plus [yards]. It's either 5-plus or it's a negative play for me. It's about moving the ball down the field and scoring touchdowns."

Which is something the Pirates did with regularity on Saturday.

The Pirates had drives of 70, 76 and 87 yards in the first half and finished the day converting 12-of-20 third-down opportunities.

Carden did a good job of eluding Houston pressure, finding open receivers on several occasions for big plays after avoiding a sack and looking downfield.

"Houston blitzed quite a bit and I thought our guys did a good job of controlling that with [Cooper's running]," McNeill said. "Shane did a good job. You'll see Shane get better and get people to pay for blitzing him."

Carden completed touchdown passes of 6, 12 and 9 yards to Webster for the Pirates' first three scores and found Reese Wiggins for an 8-yarder to put ECU up 28-0.

Warren Harvey kicked a pair field goals, from 28 and 31 yards, to push his string of made field goals to 10-straight before missing with five minutes left in the game.

Nine players were on the receiving end of Carden passes, a factor in a game in which leading receiver Justin Hardy was sidelined early in the second half when he caught a short pass over the middle and was sandwiched between two Houston defenders.

Hardy did not play after because of concussion-like symptoms, but McNeill was hopeful that he would be able to return for the Pirates' next game on Nov. 17 at Tulane.

"Justin Hardy is a key player for our football team," McNeill said. "I hope he's back for our next game. The off week comes at a good time."

Just like the victory, which came on the heels of a tough loss and also put the Pirates back in the familiar territory of being bowl eligible.

"This game for our team was huge," Carden said. "We were sitting at 5-4 and if we lose we are 5-5 and still not bowl eligible and facing a bye week. We came out and showed up big.

"We were confident that we would get [bowl eligible] at some point, but it's good to have it."