ECU Beats Southern Miss In C-USA Opener, 24-14
Sept. 15, 2012
by Bill Woodward
HATTIESBURG, Miss. - East Carolina's defense made sure that quarterback Shane Carden's first start was a memorable one.
Carden, given time by an opportunistic and swarming ECU defense to get the offense going in the second half, passed for one touchdown and ran for another as the Pirates went on a 21-0 third-quarter run to defeat Southern Mississippi 24-14 in both teams' Conference USA opener.
The Pirates (2-1, 1-0 C-USA) handed Southern Miss (0-2, 0-1) its first loss in a home opener in 13 years. Thanks in large part to an aggressive defense that produced three turnovers, including a 16-yard fumble-recovery return for a touchdown by redshirt freshman Montese Overton in the third quarter.
"The defense played great," said Carden, a sophomore who took over at quarterback in the second half last week in a 48-10 loss at South Carolina. "We started out a little slow, but we knew things would start clicking. No one ever panicked. That was the biggest thing. We just came out in the second half and started making routine plays that we weren't making in the first half.
"The No. 1 thing for me was not to turn the ball over. That was the biggest thing."
A week after making five turnovers against the Gamecocks, the Pirates' offense had a turnover-free day. But the Pirates trailed 7-3 at halftime after a sluggish first half on offense.
Warren Harvey's 54-yard field goal on the last play of the half gave the Pirates some momentum going into the locker room, making the score 7-3. It was the fifth-longest field goal in ECU history, matching Michael Barbour's 54-yarder in 2011. Barbour's 58-yarder last season and Jeff Heath's from the same distance in 1982 share the ECU record.
The second half was a complete turnaround, with the defense and offense both making their share of big plays.
An interception by Joshua Hawkins stopped Southern Miss on the first possession of the third quarter, and suddenly the ECU offense came alive.
Held to 74 total yards in the first half and minus-4 yards rushing, the Pirates found a ground game and Carden moved the team down the field.
Vintavious Cooper ripped off a 19-yard run on the first play after the interception and the Pirates moved from the USM 46 to the nine yard line in six plays. On a third-and-4 play from the nine, Carden found Justin Hardy in the end zone, but the touchdown was wiped out by an offensive pass interference penalty on Hardy.
Harvey then missed a 40-yard field attempt that hit the left upright. It could have been a deflating moment, but the Pirates came right back.
The defense stopped USM on a fourth-and-1 play from the Pirates' 15 on the next series. Three plays later, Carden hit Hardy in stride on a post pattern for a 55-yard touchdown. The point-after gave the Pirates' their first lead at 10-7 with 4:49 left in the third quarter.
"You just have to stay the course and go on to the next play," East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said of the Pirates scoring immediately after the penalty that wiped out a touchdown. "You can't let one play beat you twice or one series beat you twice."
On USM's next possession, freshman quarterback Anthony Alford made a bad pitch and Adonis Armstrong jumped on the ball at the Eagles' 19.
Four plays later, Carden kept on an option play to the left and ran nine yards into the end zone untouched.
With the Pirates up 17-7, the defense then provided the back-breaker.
On USM's ensuing series, Kyle Tudor jarred the ball loose from Alford at the 30 and Overton scooped it up and rambled into the end zone. Overton dropped the ball as he crossed the goal line - but the touchdown was upheld after review.
The Pirates led 24-7 with 1:19 left in the period. And the Eagles were reeling.
"I had never done that, even in high school," said Overton, a 6-foot-3, 214 pounder who also led the Pirates with 10 tackles. "I was hyped. I just came out and picked the ball up and ran it in."
After the slow start, Carden finished 13-for-27 for 171 yards and a touchdown. Hardy was his favorite target, with five catches for team-high 92 yards.
McNeill said adjustments at halftime helped the Pirates move the ball better in the second half.
"One of the things our coaches do [throughout the week] is to have adjustments ready," said McNeill. "We made some [at halftime] and the kids accepted them and did a good job."
It was a victory that belonged to both sides of the ball, with the defense providing big stops and turnovers and the offense taking advantage in the second half.
"The offense really wasn't getting it going in the beginning," Overton said. "We had to do what we had to do to get them back in the game. We had to keep it up for them because the offense was going to get going and keep it rolling."
The Pirates bounced back from a rough game at South Carolina and took an important step in conference with a win at USM, the defending conference champion.
"It was a tough game last week, but you can't let it beat you twice," McNeill said. "The defense played great all day long. That is a good [Southern Miss] offense. [Anthony Alford] is a special player and he will be. We just had a chance to bottle him up a little today and maybe give him things to affect him.
"We had some breakdowns here or there, but I thought we played a lot of consistent 11-man football on defense."
The number that McNeill may have liked the most was zero - the number of Pirates turnovers.
"No turnovers," he said. "We worked on it. I was proud of our guys today and our football IQ. We had a tough game last week but we couldn't let it beat us twice. I made sure that our team understood that.
"To come back and bounce back and win here at `The Rock' is big. This is a tough, tough venue to play in. To have to start at Hattiesburg was a big chore, a big task. I like the way our guys approached it. I liked the way our guys attacked it."
And with the defense's help, Carden was able to come away with a big victory in his debut as starting quarterback.