Purple Keenum Beaters|Pirates upset 18th ranked Cougars for C-USA crown

Published 8:35 am Sunday, December 6, 2009

By By BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — It was only a few years ago a day like this was unfathomable.
However, all those years of frustration made seeing Skip Holtz standing in front a frenzied Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium crowd, holding up the Conference USA championship trophy, more of a sweeter image.
The savior of East Carolina football stood on top of a stage, grabbed a microphone and told the home crowd, “You’re awesome.” But the truth is, it was an awesome display by the Pirates that helped hold off a late charge by Case Keenum and No. 18 Houston to hang on to a 38-32 victory.
With the win, the Pirates became the first-ever Conference USA team to repeat as champions since the inception of the title game in 2005.
“I just want to say how great it was to win this game, to win it at home and to do it in front of our fan base,” Holtz said.
“We talk about every year trying to build off of a legacy that the senior class has left, and this senior class not only won the conference championship, but they had the opportunity to seal it up and do it at home.”
This season’s crop of 28 seniors have no doubt made its mark on a cold and rainy day by winning what is arguably the biggest game ever played in Greenville and, aside from their two C-USA titles, the seniors have a chance to tie a school record for most wins by a class (34) if they can earn a victory in the Liberty Bowl on Jan. 2.
The chance to play in the prestigious Liberty Bowl, along with their second conference title, was almost cruelly ripped out of the hands of the Pirates (9-4, 8-1). That is until senior safety Van Eskridge pulled in his second Keenum pass of the day with less than minute left in the fourth quarter to cement the seniors’ legacy.
Eskridge’s interception was his fourth in two C-USA title games, and like last year’s win over Tulsa, his second came on the final defensive play of the game.
Holding a 38-32 lead, ECU failed to convert on a fourth-and-1 at the Houston 36-yard line, giving Keenum and the high-powered Cougars’ offense one last chance to win the game with 1:47 showing on the clock.
Keenum, a Heisman hopeful who finished the game with several Conference USA championship game passing records, including 527 passing yards and five touchdown passes, was looking to lift the Cougars (10-3, 6-3) to their fifth comeback victory of the season.
Houston wideout James Cleveland was the main beneficiary of Keenum’s record-setting day as he also rewrote the record books with his 19 receptions for 241 yards, which is a C-USA single game record.
Keenum completed 56 of his C-USA record 75 passing attempts, but while the Cougars’ passing game was eye-popping, their running game was no where to be seen.
A strong effort by the Pirates’ defense transformed the high-flying circus act known as the Houston offense into a one-trick pony, holding it to only 30 rushing yards on 19 attempts.
“(Stopping their run) was huge, and that’s a credit to our front four,” Holtz said. “Seniors Scotty Robinson, Jay Ross, C.J. Wilson and (junior) Linval Joseph were awesome. I felt the three linebackers (Nick Johnson, Chris Mattocks and Jeremy Chambliss) might have played one of their best games all season. … They were as active as they have ever been and they were involved in both the run and the pass.”
Safety Levin Neal and Chambliss led ECU with 12 tackles each, while Johnson and Eskridge had 11.
The ECU defense sacked Keenum twice and had 10 hurries, forcing the quarterback who came into the game with only six picks all season into throwing three on Saturday. None was more critical than his last one.
The Cougars marched down to the Pirates’ 34-yard line, where a field goal would have been a consideration except that Houston kicker Matt Hogan had missed three extra points, making a touchdown a necessity.
On first-and-10 at the ECU 34, Houston coach Kevin Sumlin took a stab at the end zone, but all he got was a dagger in the heart.
Keenum attempted to hit his receiver on the right side of the end zone, but the ball bounced off of corner Travis Simmons’ shoulder and into the hands of Eskridge.
“Coming up with a pick (on the final play of his career at home) was a dream come true,” Eskridge said. “I’d like to compliment Travis Simmons because he knocked it loose. I was just in the right place at the right time. It’s a dream come true winning at home in front of these fans. It’s a great day.”
It was a great day for ECU junior wide receiver Dwayne Harris, whose nine catches for 123 yards and one touchdown earned him the game’s most valuable player award.
Harris’ lone score was vital, and came on ECU’s first possession in the third quarter and gave the Pirates a 21-19 lead. It was the last of three lead changes in the game.
Sixth-year senior quarterback Patrick Pinkney’s final game in Greenville was a memorable one as he overcame missing some throws early to finish the day completing 21 of his 34 attempts for 262 yards and one score.
Houston got on the board first as Keenum hit Cleveland over the middle on a short pass and watched him dash down field to complete a 57-yard TD pass and take a 7-0 lead.
The Pirates answered on their next possession as a Harris 69-yard kick return helped set up Dominique Lindsay for a one-yard TD plunge.
Lindsay led ECU with 77 yards on 25 carries.
In the second quarter Keenum hooked up with Cleveland for his second TD reception of the game, but Hogan missed the ensuing PAT attempt giving the Cougars a 13-7 lead.
Later in the quarter Houston looked as if it was going to pad its lead, but Neal intercepted a Keenum pass in ECU’s end zone. The interception took away a touchdown for the Cougars, and set up running back Givani Ruffin (7-55) for the first of his two touchdown runs.
Ruffin’s five-yard run helped the Pirates take their first lead of the day, 14-13 with 4:21 left in the second quarter.
East Carolina’s advantage didn’t last long as Keenum found Tyron Carrier for a 21-yard TD pass with :25 left before the break. The Cougars were poised to take a 20-14 lead except Hogan missed his second PAT attempt of the day.
Harris’ TD at the start of the third quarter gave ECU a 21-19 lead, which was expanded on later in the quarter by a Ben Hartman 37-yard field goal.
After a Lindsay seven-yard TD in the fourth, ECU pulled ahead 31-19, giving it the biggest lead either team had all afternoon.
Houston answered with a Keenum six-yard pass to L.J. Castile to cut the deficit to 31-26 early in the fourth quarter.
The Pirates responded to the challenge the same way they have all year, retaliating with a seven-play, 64-yard scoring drive that was capped off by a Ruffin 20-yard dash that increased their lead to 38-26.
Houston put a scare into the Pirates as it punched back with Keenum’s fifth TD of the afternoon, a 24-yarder to Cleveland, but it was followed by a blocked Hogan PAT to close out the scoring at 38-32.
Houston 7 12 0 13 — 32
East Carolina 7 7 10 14 — 38
First Quarter
Hou—Cleveland 57 pass from Keenum (Hogan kick), 5:00.
ECU—Lindsay 1 run (Hartman kick), 1:27.
Second Quarter
Hou—Cleveland 4 pass from Keenum (kick failed), 13:04.
ECU—G.Ruffin 5 run (Hartman kick), 4:21.
Hou—Carrier 21 pass from Keenum (kick failed), :25.
Third Quarter
ECU—Harris 22 pass from Pinkney (Hartman kick), 12:03.
ECU—FG Hartman 37, 3:29.
Fourth Quarter
ECU—Lindsay 7 run (Hartman kick), 13:27.
Hou—Castile 6 pass from Keenum (Hogan kick), 10:02.
ECU—G.Ruffin 20 run (Hartman kick), 6:39.
Hou—Cleveland 24 pass from Keenum (kick blocked), 3:24.
First downs 33 23
Rushes-yards 19-30 38-151
Passing 527 262
Comp-Att-Int 56-75-3 21-34-0
Return Yards 5 65
Punts-Avg. 4-48.8 3-47.0
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 1-1
Penalties-Yards 3-25 5-25
Time of Possession 29:39 30:08
RUSHING—Houston, Keenum 7-12, C.Sims 9-12, Beall 3-6. East Carolina, Lindsay 25-75, G.Ruffin 7-55, Pinkney 3-17, Harris 2-6, Team 1-(minus 2).
PASSING—Houston, Keenum 56-75-3-527. East Carolina, Pinkney 21-34-0-262.
RECEIVING—Houston, Cleveland 19-241, Carrier 11-94, C.Sims 9-97, Edwards 7-36, Rodriguez 4-38, Beall 2-5, J.Johnson 2-4, Castile 1-6, E.Smith 1-6. East Carolina, Harris 9-123, Freeney 4-49, Lindsay 3-37, Bodenheimer 2-27, Gidrey 2-21, G.Ruffin 1-5.