Pirates come up short on big stage

Published 1:18 pm Sunday, September 7, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Pirates of ECU played well enough to win in Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, but familiarly, when opportunities presented themselves, ECU failed to capitalize. The Pirates can walk away from Columbia with their heads held high, but the time for ascension is now and ECU dropped its fifth straight game to nationally-ranked opponents with a 33-23 loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks.

“We missed a few opportunities here and there,” said ECU running back Breon Allen (four rushes for 58 yards) after the game. “I want to give South Carolina credit because they came out and did what they had to do to win the game.”

Turnovers, penalties and missed touchdown opportunities in the red zone marred what was an otherwise solid effort from the Pirates.

After leading, 20-16 at the half, the Gamecocks scored 10 unanswered points in the third quarter. With a 30-16 lead, USC seemed poised to run away with the contest, similar to the clash between these teams in 2011, in which South Carolina won 56-37. But the Pirates came storming back. ECU began its ensuing drive at its own 25 yard-line and went 11 plays and 75 yards to score on a 17-yard reception by senior Cam Worthy from Shane Carden. The senior looked as poised as ever on the drive, scampering for a first down on fourth-and-four in Gamecock territory.

The Pirates, trailing 30-23 kicked off needing a stop with 12 minutes remaining in the game. ECU was given its chance on the second play of the drive as South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson tossed the ball 15 yards down field into double coverage towards receiver Shaq Roland but senior cornerback Josh Hawkins dropped what would have been a game-changing pick. It was a difficult interception attempt, but the Gamecocks didn’t provide ECU with any more opportunities. USC proceeded to drive 86 yards down field and hit a game-clinching field goal after running 10 minutes, 33 seconds off the clock.

After the demoralizing drive for ECU’s defense, which it was gashed for 54 yards rushing, ECU’s offense, trailing by 10 with one minute, 30 seconds remaining, was left with too little time to operate.

Running back Mike Davis, who was questionable for most of the week leading up to the game dealing with bruised ribs, turned out to be the difference maker that USC needed. Davis recorded 101 yards and a touchdown on the ground on 18 carries.

Heading into the game, the talk surrounding the matchup largely consisted of ECU’s necessity to play well in its untested secondary, but the difference in the game was South Carolina’s ability to run the ball (38 rushes, 175 yards).

The Pirates’ failure to convert drives into touchdowns, especially in the first half also turned out to be a huge factor. Kicker Warren Harvey connected on three out of four field goal attempts, a decent night for him, but ECU Offensive Coordinator undoubtedly wanted more red-zone efficiency.

“We’ve got to be better in the redzone,” said receiver Justin Hardy (11 receptions for 133 yards). “We’ve got to be better at it next week in practice and prepare for next week, for Saturday.”

The Pirates drove down the field on their first drive of the night before settling for a 26-yard field goal after a rare Justin Hardy drop in the end zone (on a high throw). On the Gamecocks’ ensuing drive, Thompson threw an interception into the hands of Josh Hawkins in USC territory. ECU had a royal opportunity to jump out to an early, two-score lead in a hostile environment but again, settled for three points. Harvey was also blocked on a 42-yard field goal attempt with just over two minutes left in the first half. The block turned out to be a huge momentum shift for USC.

Shane Carden had a solid night, throwing for 321 yards on 32-for-46, but his two interceptions on ECU’s first two drives of the second half proved costly, as South Carolina won the turnover battle, 2-1.

“Turnovers on me,” said Carden. “I can’t have that. The offense played great all night, kept the offense alive, played pretty well the entire time. We were running the ball well (21 rushes for 132 yards), and we were moving. Everything was just right. We’ve just got to play smart and score touchdowns instead of field goals.”