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Pirates top Mountaineers

East Carolina quarterback Rio Johnson led the Pirates to a 35-13 win over Appalachian State in his first career start on Saturday. (Photo Courtesy of ECU/Rob Goldberg)

GREENVILLE — It was exactly five years ago today that Appalachian State grabbed national headlines by stunning fifth-ranked Michigan in the Big House in its 2007 season opener. On Saturday, East Carolina refused to let its FCS foes celebrate another stunner as the Pirates topped the Mountaineers 35-13 in both teams’ season opener.
The Pirates (1-0, Conference USA) fell behind 7-0 early as Appalachian State (0-1, Southern Conference) quarterback Jamal Jackson scored on a keeper from four yards out in the first quarter. However, ECU regained control of the game and pushed aside any thoughts of an upset by responding with 21-6 run that spanned over the second and third quarters and featured touchdowns by the defense, offense and special teams to avoid being stunned by their in-state, FCS rivals.
“All three sides of the ball contributed to the win,” East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. “I’m proud to get the win. Wins are hard to come by in this business.”
Jackson’s touchdown run would be the only one of the game for App State as it managed to score only six points after that thanks to Drew Scott field goals of 26 and 41 yards. Jackson would finish the day going 23 of 41 for 300 yards and one interception.
The Pirates defense held strong for a majority of the game as it forced and recovered two fumbles and had an interception by Lamar Ivey. Kyle Tudor led ECU in tackles with 11, while Jeremy Grove added nine.
The Pirates benefited from the play of several new faces as JUCO transfer safety Chip Thompson returned a fumble 45 yards for ECU’s first score of the game and fellow JUCO transfer WR Lance Ray wiggled his way through the App State defense for a momentum-changing 90-yard kickoff return that put the Pirates up 21-13 with 2:19 left in the third quarter.
Ray’s return came on the heels of Scott’s final field goal that cut the Pirates’ lead to 14-13. After the touchdown the Northwest Mississippi Community College transfer reminded his coach why they recruited him so hard.
“We he came to the sideline he said ‘Coach, that’s what you brought me here for,’” McNeill said.
In his first-ever start with the Pirates, junior quarterback Rio Johnson had a modest outing as he connected on 28 of his 43 pass attempts for 242 yards, two TDs and one interception. Johnson was off target on a few deep balls, but also ran for a six-yard TD midway through the fourth quarter.
When asked to evaluate at Johnson’s debut on a scale of 1-10 McNeill responded, “Win. W.I.N exclamation mark, exclamation mark.”
Johnson’s first TD pass of his Pirates’ career came midway through the second quarter when he hit WR Andrew Bodenheimer at the 2-yard line and looked on as the senior plowed his way into the end zone to put ECU up 14-7. Johnson’s second TD pass of the game came on a four-yarder to Justin Hardy at the start of the fourth quarter. Hardy would finish the day with six receptions for 38 yards, while Reese Wiggins added six catches for 45 yards.
“We kind of started a little slow but we got the win,” Johnson said of his first start. “That’s the only thing that really matters.”
The Pirates benifited from a balanced attack as they ran the ball 35 times for 148 yards led by Michael Dobson’s 19 carries for 80 yards and Reggie Bullock’s eight attempts for 31 yards.
“We were not far from being balanced last year. We throw the football but we also want to be able to run it,” McNeill said. “We want to keep it balanced and if the run is there we’ll take it.”
The Pirates will face a drastic upgrade in competition next Saturday, as they will hit the road to face No. 9 South Carolina.