Houston hammers East Carolina

Published 1:25 am Sunday, September 28, 2008

By By STEVE FRANKLIN, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — On the Pirates’ pregame radio show, East Carolina defensive coordinator Greg Hudson referred to Houston quarterback Case Keenum as the next Joe Montana.
Maybe Hudson was right.
Keenum did his best ‘Joe Cool’ imitation on Saturday afternoon, completing 36-of-44 passes for a career-high 399 yards and three touchdowns as the Cougars routed the No. 23 Pirates 41-24 in front of 43,641 fans at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
With his team up 24-17 early in the fourth quarter, Keenum helped cement Houston’s first road victory over a ranked opponent in almost 24 years.
On 2nd-and-14 from his own 16-yard line, the Cougars’ sophomore quarterback rolled to his right to avoid a pass rush and launched the ball 40 yards down field to a wide open Kierrie Johnson, who outraced the entire Pirates’ defense for an 84-yard scoring strike to give Houston a 31-17 lead with 14:06 to play.
On the next Pirates’ possession, Houston’s Quinte Williams intercepted East Carolina backup quarterback Rob Kass at the ECU 47-yard line and returned it 44 yards to the Pirates’ 3.
Two plays later, freshman running back Bryce Beall darted into the end zone from five yards out to put the finishing touches on the Cougars’ first conference win.
The Pirates fell behind early and could never recover in their conference home opener.
In the opening half, Houston jumped ahead early in the first quarter as ECU quarterback Patrick Pinkney tried to force the ball to Jamar Bryant, but had his pass batted away and intercepted by Brandon Brinkley at the ECU 21 yard line.
Forty-eight seconds later, Keenum connected with Patrick Edwards on a slant route for a 24-yard scoring strike to make it 7-0 in favor of the Cougars.
With 6:28 left in the first, the Pirates evened the score as redshirt freshman cornerback Emanuel Davis recorded his first career interception and rumbled 11 yards for a touchdown.
It was the third straight game that the Pirates scored on either defense or special teams.
On Houston’s following drive, the Cougars responded with a five-play, 78-yard drive that ended with freshman running back Bryce Beall galloping in from 21 yards out to make it 14-7 in Houston’s favor.
ECU tried to mount a rally late in the first quarter.
With less than two minutes left in the opening quarter, the Pirates forced the Cougars to turn the ball over for a third time as Zach Slate stripped Keenum from behind and Johnson scooped up the ball and darted inside the Cougars’ 30 yard line.
After picking up one first down, the Pirates settled for a 26-yard field goal by Ben Hartman to make it 14-10 with 14:57 left in the first half.
They wouldn’t get any closer
After Houston misfired on a couple scoring opportunities - bobbling a high snap on a 30-yard field attempt and coming up short on a 46-yard field goal attempt - the Cougars managed to extend their lead just before the half.
Keenum marched Houston 80 yards in two minutes and 29 seconds, busting loose for a 29-yard run and completing seven passes for 34 yards, the last of which was an 11-yard strike to tight end Mark Hafner with 11 seconds left in the second quarter to give the Cougars a 21-10 halftime lead.
That’s when the Pirates turned to backup quarterback Rob Kass to try to inject some life into an offense that netted just 94 yards in the first half.
On his second possession, he did just that.
Kass completed East Carolina’s longest pass of the day, a 41-yard bullet to Dwayne Harris, down to the Cougars’ 18-yard line midway through the third quarter.
From there, Brandon Simmons did the rest, carrying four times for 18 yards, and scoring on a four-yard touchdown plunge to cut the lead to 21-17 with 6:02 left in the third quarter.
That’s when Houston (2-3, 1-0 in Conference USA) erupted for 17 unanswered points, thanks to a 24-yard field goal by Ben Bell, along with Keenum’s 84-yard touchdown pass and Beall’s five-yard touchdown scamper.
Houston rolled up 621 yards of total offense, the most yards ever given up under Holtz.
Besides giving up 399 yards to Keenum, the Pirates also allowed their first 100-yard rushing game of the season, as Beall rushed for 132 yards.
While Houston’s offense was virtually unstoppable, the Pirates offense was in a funk for most of the afternoon. ECU was limited to 275 yards of offense, turned the ball over three times, and converted just 1-of-13 third down attempts.
The good news for the Pirates (3-2, 1-1 in Conference USA) is that they will have a bye week to regroup after two heart-breaking losses in a row.