Pirates say goodnight to Owls in C-USA openerPublished 11:56pm Thursday, September 5, 2013
GREENVILLE — Ask and you shall receive. After a week of fielding questions about their impotent running game, inconsistent pass defense and near non-existent pass rush the Pirates proved they could do all three during Thursday night’s 31-13 thrashing of Florida Atlantic University in both team’s Conference USA opener.
Decked out in its new all-black alternate jerseys East Carolina’s defense left the Owls offense looking black and blue as it picked off two passes, racked up six sacks and created three turnovers to flog FAU in its first ever Conference USA contest.
“The (defense) did a good job,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. “We made some adjustments and I was proud how our kids embraced them and did a good job of taking it from the practice field to the game field.”
Last week, the Pirates defense looked shaky, allowing 370 passing yards during their 52-38 victory over FCS members Old Dominion and failed to put heat on Monarchs’ QB Taylor Heinicke.
Thursday night, ECU (2-0, 1-0) got after it on the defensive end, pressuring Owls (0-2, 0-1) quarterbacks Jaquez Johnson and Greg Hankerson early and often.
The sophomore Johnson started for the Owls and hit on nine of his 14 pass attempts for 62 yards, while Hankerson, a freshman, tallied 116 yards on 14-for-26 passing. Each QB was picked off once.
ECU defensive end Lee Pegues wreaked havoc on the Owls passers, amassing three sacks, while three other Pirates recorded one.
The Pirates ran for 34 yards against ODU, but their rushing attack was resurrected thanks to a stellar effort from running back Vintavious Cooper, who galloped for a game-high 95 yards and a score, while catching a team-high five passes for 49 yards.
“That’s just ’Tay Cooper,” McNeill said. “He’s an all-around football player. He has great hands and he can run the ball well. The one thing he had to work on was protection and he’s done a good job of that.”
Cooper was a force from the opening drive, carrying the ball four times for 22 yards and turning a shovel pass into a 13-yard gain to set up the Pirates first touchdown.
With the ball at the 18-yard line, Shane Carden connected with freshman Davon Grayson on slant to go ahead 7-0.
“We talked with the offensive line all week about establishing our physicality up front and starting out fast,” Cooper said. “We can’t come in to a game slow, especially running the ball. We wanted to establish the run at the beginning of the game and set things up off of that.”
Carden, who was named the Conference USA Offensive player of the Week after throwing for 447 yards in the Pirates season opener, was on point once again with an efficient 17-for-25 performance for 191 yards and two TDs in three quarters of play to pilot the Pirates Air Raid offense.
Former Sun Belt Conference members FAU cut ECU’s lead to 7-6 early in the second quarter after field goals of 44 and 46 yards by Mitch Anderson. However, the Pirates put the Owls’ upset bid to sleep by ripping off 24 unanswered points.
An 85-yard kickoff return by Lance Ray led to a 1-yard TD pass from Carden to Hardy at the 10:34 mark in the second.
Maurice Falls picked off Hankerson’s first pass of the game in the right flat and returned it 18 yards to give the offense possession at the FAU 12. Three plays later Cooper squirted in the end zone from seven yards out to up the lead to 21-6.
The ECU defense paved the way for points again in the third when sophomore CB Joshua Hawkins stepped in front of a Johnson pass and took it five yards to give ECU the ball at the Owls 26-yard line, which led to a Warren Harvey 22-yard field goal.
The Pirates extended their lead to 31-6 near the end of the third as Carden led the team on an 11-play 67-yard drive that ended with sophomore RB Chris Hairston scoring his first career touchdown from four yards out.
FAU scored its final touchdown of the game when Duke Williams pulled in a two-yard pass from Hankerson with 1:03 left in the fourth.