East Carolina falls to Florida

Published 3:33 am Sunday, September 13, 2015

GAINESVILLES, Fla. — The East Carolina football team (1-1) saw a golden opportunity slip right out of its fingers with just seconds left against Florida (2-0) Saturday evening, in every sense of the phrase.

The overtime set up was there for the taking with 20 seconds left in a 31-24 game in Florida’s favor and the ball on the Gators’ 13-yard line. Redshirt junior quarterback Blake Kemp dropped back and as he geared to throw, the ball slipped from his fingers, fell back to the 25-yard line and was promptly scooped up by Alex McCalister to effectively end the game.

“The ball was wet and it just slipped out of my hands,” said Kemp with his chin still up despite the obvious heartbreak. “It’s my fault; I should have gripped it better.”

It would be nearly impossible to point to Kemp for the loss, however. With the run game rendered completely ineffective (-13 yards on 22 attempts), the Chandler, Arizona native was 34-for-54 with 333 yards through the air and three touchdowns in his second career start under the pressure of one of the most intense game day atmospheres in the country.

James Summers was given his first opportunity at quarterback by ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill in the second quarter. The junior performed admirably, completing three of four passes for 13 yards, but in his first Division I game and just over two weeks into his time with the Pirates, Saturday was not the time.

Kemp adjusted quickly to the seemingly overwhelming environment, something the JUCO transfer had certainly had never experienced.

“It wasn’t a big deal,” said Kemp. “Once the ball is down and you get going it really isn’t any different than playing in high school.”

Kemp’s biggest throwing mistake of evening was a pass late in the third quarter that landed in the hands of Florida’s Jalen Tarbor and resulted in a touchdown that put the Gators up, 24-14.

Kemp showed poise in response, however. After a penalty-ridden following drive, Demetri McGill forced a fumble from Florida’s Mark Herndon in Gator territory, leaving the Pirates with a short field and plenty of time to make it a one-score game. Kemp completed three passes on the dive for 15 yards and moved the ball close enough for a Davis Plowman field goal to put ECU within seven points.

But the Gators, backed by a crowd of 88,034 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, struck again.  An 11-play, 75-yard drive was capped off by a seven-yard Kelvin Taylor touchdown run.

Trailing by 14 with less than seven minutes left, Kemp showed his worth. With “The Swamp” pumping, hoping for a stop, Kemp went 7-for-10 on the drive with 64 yards and a seven-yard touchdown pass to senior Bryce Williams to make it 31-24, Florida with 3:04 left. Junior Isaiah Jones reeled in two passes on the drive for 37 yards and finished the game with a career-high 14 receptions for 135 yards and a touchdown.

Then, the defense took over.

McGill pushed through the Florida offensive twice to bring down Taylor for short yardage. On third-and-10, Zeek Bigger made the stop of the day on Taylor to leave ECU an opportunity to tie the game.

“When you play this game for a long time, that’s just something you live for in the big environments with everybody watching,” said Bigger with a reminiscent smile. “This is what everybody wants to see. When you’re down in the clutch and when you have nothing left to give, what will you do? Can you stop them? We did. We gave the ball back to our offense and, hey, it is what it is.”

Kemp went back to work with 1:55 left on the clock and completed five of seven passes, but the fumble ended the drive, the game and ECU’s quest to beat a Southeastern Conference team on the road.

With the loss behind them now and the Pirates headed back to Greenville for the week, the only question remaining is how the team responds against American Athletic Conference opponent Navy.

“I told the team that they have to keep their heads up. There’s a lot of season left,” McNeill said. “A loss is only a loss if you learn nothing from it.”