We Believe (1991 Dream Season)
Nov. 14, 2013
By Malcolm Gray,
The East Carolina football team made true believers across the college football landscape in 1991. From California to New York, from Illinois to Florida, the Pirates were a hot topic of discussion in every newspaper and sport publication that season. http://grfx.cstv.com/photos/schools/ecu/sports/m-footbl/auto_original/7515409.jpeg
Following its sixth losing season in the last seven years, third-year head coach Bill Lewis' squad held a lot of promise heading into the year. ECU returned 30 lettermen, 14 of which were starters. The Pirates welcomed back eight starters on offense including five skill position players. Defensively, preseason All-America linebacker Robert Jones returned as the nation's leading tackler with 167 stops from the previous year.
The magical season kicked off in front of a national audience at Illinois on ESPN. Trailing 38-10 early in the third quarter, senior Jeff Blake hooked up with Dion Johnson (40, 80) and Clayton Driver (16) on three second half TD strikes pulling ECU within a touchdown, 38-31, with 1:46 remaining. Anthony Brenner's onside kick attempt was recovered by Driver on the IU 46-yard line and gave the Pirates a chance to tie or win the contest. However, after they were flagged for excessive celebration, the Pirates were backed up to their own 31 with no time outs and their rally fell short.
Bound and determined to not let the set back define the 1991 season, ECU reeled off 11 straight wins closing the season with an 11-1 record and an Associated Press final ranking of No. 9.
Following the loss at Illinois, ECU quickly turned its focus to Memphis State, a team that walked into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and defeated No. 16 Southern Cal, 24-10, a week earlier. The Pirates and Tigers were locked into a defensive battle early in the third quarter with the score knotted at 10-all. Damon Wilson's one-yard run with 7:49 left in the contest finally put the Pirates ahead to stay, 20-13.
After cruising to a 47-25 win at Central Florida, the Pirates returned home to face South Carolina and the goal-posts came tumbling down with ECU's first-ever win over the Gamecocks, 31-20. Once again the Pirates trailed early in the third quarter, 14-10, until Blake found tight end Luke Fisher for an 11-yard score to give the Pirates a 17-14 lead. Blake connected with Hunter Gallimore on scoring strikes of 25 and 71 yards in the fourth period cementing the victory and giving ECU its first three-game win streak since 1989.
Sitting at 4-1 on the season after a 56-20 win over Akron, the Pirates continued their season of firsts, scoring their first-ever road win over a nationally-ranked opponent, defeating No. 15 Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, 23-20. Trailing 20-10 at half, Brenner booted a pair of field goals (40, 51 yards) and Blake scored from 43 yards out early in the fourth quarter pushing ECU's record to 5-1 and on a path toward national recognition and bowl consideration.
ECU entered its bye week with five-straight wins and for the first time since 1984 was nationally-ranked receiving 170 points in the Associated Press poll, good enough for 23rd.
Coming off a bye-week, which saw them move up three places in the AP Poll, the Pirates welcomed 23rd-ranked Pittsburgh to Greenville.
With the chants of "We Believe" echoing from the Ficklen Stadium stands, Blake engineered a 10-play, 80-yard drive scoring from two yards out to close the gap to 23-22. Blake then ran in for a two-point conversion, giving the 20th-ranked Pirates a 24-23 win in front of a then-record-setting crowd of 36,000 fans.
ECU outscored its opponents 140-84 in its final four games to finish the regular season 10-1, ranked No. 12 and with an invitation to play in-state rival NC State in the Peach Bowl on Jan. 1, 1992.
ECU took a 17-14 lead into the half behind a pair of Blake touchdown passes to Cedric Van Buren (5 yards) and Gallimore (55 yards), and a 27-yard field goal by Brenner. However, the Wolfpack exploded for 20-straight points and seemed to be rolling toward a big win over their rivals leading 34-17.
Blake once again rallied the Pirates from behind directing three scoring drives in the final 13 minutes. ECU began its comeback when NC State's punter Tim Kilpatrick looped a 10-yard kick off the side of his foot. Starting at the Wolfpack 32, the Pirates took seven plays to cut the gap to 34 24 on a two-yard dive by Blake, who barely got over the goal line.
The reignited ECU defense finally corralled NC State and tailback Anthony Barbour on their next possession to force another punt. Starting on its own 20, the Pirates drove the length of the field with Blake throwing on every down from the shotgun formation trying to negate NC State's ferocious pass rush. The move worked as Blake connected on 8-of-10 passes during the drive. The Pirates got within four points when Blake found Johnson open down the right side for a 17 yard score. The following two-point conversion failed on a bobbled snap and ECU trailed 34-30 with 4:18 remaining.
Jerry Dillion's nine-yard sack of Terry Jordan and a Shad Santee dropped pass forced the Wolfpack to punt again, but Johnson atoned for his earlier fumble, returning the ball to the NCSU 41-yard line.
ECU took over with 2:37 left and headed for the end zone. Blake completed three short passes that brought the ball to the 22. On a third-and-two, Fisher got loose down the middle of the field and lunged across the goal line to give the Pirates the lead, 37-34.
With 92 faithful ticks still on the clock, the Pirates had one more storm to weather. Jordan moved NC State down to the ECU 36-yard line completing four of five passes with 26 seconds left to play. But on the next play, ECU's Zaim Cunmulaj and Marc Washington teamed up on an 18-yard sack. Jordan hooked up with Robert Hinton for a 23-yard gain getting the Pack to ECU's 32 yard line, but Damon Hartman missed a 49-yard field goal attempt wide right as time expired capping off ECU's "Un-bowl-lievable" dream season.