GREENVILLE — Officially, the game was decided on the final play when South Carolina’s Parker White kicked a 36-yard field goal for a 20-17 victory against East Carolina at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The beginning of the end for the Pirates, however, came in the final minute of the first half.
Coach Mike Houston’s team was leading its SEC opponent by 14 at the time and was seemingly in complete control when quarterback Holton Ahlers had his screen pass intercepted by the Gamecocks’ Damani Staley.
The son of former NFL running back Duce Staley returned it 63 yards for a touchdown that gave South Carolina life and sparked the comeback that would eventually lead to the final-play dramatics Saturday.
“That was a big play,” Houston said of the momentum-swinging pick six. “He’d give anything to have it back. They had a pressure called, we had a screen called, and screens are sometimes feast or famine. If you get it off, it’s going to be a huge play for us. The kid made a great play, and it’s probably the difference in the ballgame.”
ECU (0-2) was on the cusp of field goal range on the third-and-10 play that turned the game around. But instead of adding to their two-touchdown lead, the Pirates saw the advantage cut in half when pressure by Gamecock defensive end Aaron Sterling forced Ahlers to get rid of the ball sooner than he wanted.
It was one of several missed opportunities by ECU’s offense during a first half in which its opponent couldn’t seem to get out of its own way thanks to turnovers and penalties.
The Pirates also missed a 44-yard field goal, gave up four first half sacks and failed to extend possessions by struggling on third down. They converted just 2 of 16 for the game.
Their two touchdown “drives” consisted of a 75-yard completion on a trick play and a two-play, 13-yard drive following a turnover.
“We should have broke that one open if we convert those third downs,” said Ahlers, who finished 11 of 24 for 77 yards and two interceptions. “I told the defense that when they play like that, we should win every time. It’s not on the defense at all. It’s on the offense and it starts with me. I’m the quarterback.”
Houston, however, absolved his quarterback by pointing out that the opposition had a lot to do with his team’s inability to sustain drives. As a team, the Pirates gained just 263 yards of total offense — 152 through the air, 111 on the ground.
“We didn’t convert for as many points as we wanted, but I mean, you’re playing a really good SEC defense,” the ECU coach said. “That defensive line, you’ve got at least one first round draft pick and two five-star kids — one of them was the top defensive end in the country coming out of high school. We weren’t playing against mediocre players.”
And yet, the Pirates still managed to put the Gamecocks (2-0) on the ropes by hitting them with a little early trickery. On the game’s first play, wide receiver Tyler Snead took a handoff from Ahlers on what appeared to be a reverse, but he instead pulled up and threw a strike to Jsi Hatfield for a 75-yard touchdown.
“We wanted to come out and be aggressive because we knew they were going to be aggressive with us,” Houston said.
“I was really excited,” said Snead, who was told he’d be running the play at practice on Thursday. “We practiced it, we worked on it, I’m glad we executed the outcome.”
ECU’s defense showed some early execution as well. Not only did its pressure make USC’s Zeb Noland look more like the graduate assistant he once was than the quarterback he has been pressed into service to become, but it also kept the Gamecocks from establishing any semblance of a running game.
The Pirates also created a big turnover when linebacker Jeremy Lewis stripped the ball from receiver Dakereon Joyner into the hands of teammate D.J. Ford, who returned it to the USC 13 — leading to ECU’s second touchdown.
Although South Carolina was able to tie the game with a third quarter touchdown pass from Noland to Joyner, then answer a 26-yard Owen Daffer field goal with one of its own before foiling the Pirates’ bid for a program defining win, Ford was encouraged by a defensive performance his teammate Ahlers called the best he’s seen during his four seasons at ECU.
“I think our guys responded well,” said Ford, a graduate transfer safety from North Carolina. “We did exactly what the coaches asked us to do. We came out flying and we were physical. Nobody can doubt that. That was obvious in the way we played.”
Until the end that is.
Whether it was fatigue or a change in South Carolina’s blocking scheme, the Gamecocks were able to drive 54 yards on 10 plays over the final 4:54 to set up White’s winning kick. Forty-five of those yards came on runs by Juju McDowell, a freshman running back who originally committed to NC State.
The ending was especially disappointing for the Pirates, who — despite being boosted by a festive crowd of 40,816 — saw the last remnants of the momentum they gained by ending the 2020 season with two straight wins slip out of their grasp.
“If anything, I think everybody sees the kind of heart this bunch has,” Houston said. “They’re going to fight. We’re going to show up next week (at Marshall), we’re going to play. We’ve got pretty high expectations internally, the kids work their tails off. Certainly they wanted this one badly, for a lot of reasons. They’ll be back.”