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Turnovers, defensive miscues take toll as Pirates lose bowl eligibility

GREENVILLE — There will be no 13th game for the East Carolina football team.

Saturday’s 55-31 loss to Southern Methodist eliminated the Pirates from bowl contention for the second straight season. The game, played on Military Appreciation Day, was filled with defensive miscues and untimely turnovers.

Despite jumping out to an early 7-0 lead, highlighted by a Zay Jones 39-yard catch and run, the Pirates couldn’t stay out of their own way. The turnover issues started when Quay Johnson fumbled the ball after catching a screen pass. An SMU defender pounced on the ball, giving the Mustangs good field position en route to a touchdown.

“We had too many turnovers today,” said running back James Summers, who had a fumble of his own — one of five Pirate turnovers. “That was the cause of the game. We really beat ourselves today and I’m pretty sure coach hit on that too.”

Things only got worse from there as quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Gardner Minshew threw two interceptions returned for touchdowns by SMU’s Horace Richardson. The errant passes resulted in 14 points for the Mustangs’ aggressive defense and dug a hole that the Pirates ultimately couldn’t climb out of.

“There’s some mistakes that they made us pay for,” Minshew said. “But at the end of the day we can’t put the ball in danger like that. It hurts our defense, it hurt our confidence on offense.”

Minshew relieved Nelson in the second quarter and finished 18-for-30 with 170 yards a touchdown and an interception. Nelson was pulled after going 11-for-19, with 144 yards and two interceptions.

The four first-half turnovers resulted in a 38-24 deficit heading into halftime and when ECU again threw an interception on the first drive of the second half, it ultimately sealed the deal.

“It had a major effect,” Jones said. “When you’re turning the ball over that much and they’re capitalizing and scoring, that really just digs the offense in a whole. It’s just a bad feeling.”

Jones, who had 12 catches for 173 yards and a touchdown, is now just eight catches away from breaking former Pirate Justin Hardy’s all-time FBS receptions record.

Sitting at 3-7, the Pirates will now be on the outside looking in during bowl season. But seniors like Summers and Jones know that the motivation will need to be refocused.

“We can’t let that stop us,” Summers said. “We need to finish the way we started; together. We have to put all on the line in these last two games. I still believe in us.”