Hairston leads East Carolina past Towson

Published 11:24 pm Saturday, September 5, 2015

DAVID CUCCHIARA | DAILY NEWS DEEP THREAT: Isaiah Jones breaks up the sideline in the second quarter of Saturday’s win over Towson.

DEEP THREAT: Isaiah Jones breaks up the sideline in the second quarter of Saturday’s win over Towson.

GREENVILLE — Chris Hairston accounted for all of East Carolina’s scores in the season-opening 28-20 victory Saturday evening.

The senior running back found the end zone four times — each touchdown bringing the same blast from fans in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium as the previous — and carved through the Towson front seven for 154 yards on 18 carries. As a fifth-year senior, Hairston has waited patiently for his chance to be a feature back — the time is now for the Winston-Salem native.

“Words can’t describe it. This is such a great feeling and I can’t believe it,” said Hairston with a grin after his career-day. “After five years, playing behind some great running backs, learning and getting my feet wet a little bit two years ago. Then last year I had a great season and got my feet wet a little more. Now it’s time, I’m the guy — I just have to execute and produce.”

Hairston became the first ECU running back to rush for four touchdowns since Chris Johnson in 2007 against Memphis. His first touchdown run came from 45 yards out on the Pirates’ first drive, followed by two one-yard plunges and a final 11-yard dash in the fourth quarter to put ECU on top 28-13 with 12 minutes left.

Blake Kemp kept the ECU offense moving with short effective passes and screen plays. The redshirt junior was more than efficient in not only his first start, but his first appearance in a Division I game. Kemp went 29-for-37 with 230 yards through the air — nothing to scoff at for a player who became a starter due Kurt Benkert’s knee injury about two weeks ago. His nerves were high leading up to the game, but a simple conversation helped to ease his mind.

“I was little nervous earlier in the week, but I spoke to my dad about some things and he calmed me down and I felt really good about it,” said the junior college transfer following the win.

Kemp stuck to short passes for most of the game and spread the ball throughout the skilled receiving corps and backs. Isaiah Jones became Kemp’s top target as he connected with the junior six times for 77 yards. Quay Johnson and Jimmy Williams each added four receptions for 30 and 26 yards, respectively.

The defense struggled early with the Towson rushing attack as Darius Victor used his speed and strength to finish with 137 yards on 28 carries. Victor’s effectiveness opened up the passing game in the second half. Towson quarterback Connor Fraizer completed 8-of-12 passes in the second half for 112 yards, though the lone touchdown pass by the senior came in the first quarter.

On Towson’s final drive of the game, the Tigers drove the ball from their own 40 to the ECU 16 yard line, set up by a crucial 19-yard reception by Tanner Vallely. On a 4th-and-7 play that could have put Towson in position to tie the game, safety Terrell Richardson made the play of the day.

The walk-on junior, who has played corner most of his career, read a pass down the middle of the field perfectly. Just as Towson’s Sam Gallahan caught a pass that would have given the Tigers a first down, the safety stepped up and separated Gallahan from the ball with a heavy hit.

“That’s probably the biggest hit I’ve ever had in my life,” said Richardson in post-game. “In high school, I never played safety so I never had a running start, but that was just perfect.”

Pirate head coach Ruffin McNeill knows how fortunate he is to be in the win column after such a close call.

“I’m proud of the team and it’s great to get that win. Wins are hard,” said McNeill in his opening statement after the win. “It’s good to get a win. We’ll grow from it as a team and as a staff. We’ll watch film in 24 hours and see what we need to work on.”