C-USA crown slips away in upset to Pirates
GREENVILLE, N.C. – The Cougars have lived on the edge for so much of the season that it should have come as no surprise that the same would have happened in Saturday’s C-USA championship game.
This time, it was costly.
Quarterback Case Keenum threw five touchdown passes, but the 18th-ranked Cougars were doomed by four turnovers and a lackluster defense outing in a 38-32 loss before a crowd of 33,048 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The Cougars (10-3) will have to wait until Sunday to find out its bowl fate. ECU (9-4), which claimed its second consecutive C-USA title, is headed to the Liberty Bowl to face Arkansas.
UH almost pulled off an improbable comeback when it took over at its 36-yard line with 1:47 remaining. The Cougars moved to the ECU 34 with 52 seconds left, but the comeback bid ended when Keenum was intercepted by Pirates safety Van Eskridge in the end zone with just over 40 seconds left.
The Pirates ran out the clock from there, and the players rushed the field in celebration.
It was the fitting end to a knockout performance by the Pirates.
ECU hit paydirt on the first drive of the second half, taking a 21-19 lead on Patrick Pinkney’s 22-yard touchdown pass to Dwayne Harris with 12:03 left in the third quarter.
The Pirates upped their lead to 24-19 when kicker Ben Hartman connected on a 37-yard field goal.
ECU safety Van Eskridge intercepted Keenum on the next drive and ran the ball back to the UH 7. Running back Dominique Lindsay dragged several defenders into the end zone on the next play to increase ECU’s lead to 31-19 with 13:27 left in the game.
Both teams started slowly in Saturday’s game, punting on their first two drives.
The Cougars’ offense found a rhythm on their third drive, moving 88 yards on eight plays and taking a 7-0 lead on a 57-yard catch-and-run from Keenum to wide receiver James Cleveland with five minutes remaining in the first quarter. It was the longest pass play in C-USA championship game history.
ECU quickly responded.
The Pirates received great field position after Dwayne Harris returned the ensuing kickoff 69 yards to set up a first-and-10 at UH’s 26-yard line. Eight plays later, Lindsay barreled into the end zone from 1 yard out to tie the game at 7 with 1:27 left in the first quarter.
The Cougars went three-and-out on their next possession, but their special teams unit bailed them out.
Tim Mercer forced Pirates punt returner Travis Simmons to fumble the ensuing punt, and C.J. Cavness fell on the loose ball to give the Cougars possession at the ECU 38.
Five plays later, Keenum found Cleveland on a 4-yard touchdown pass with 13:04 remaining in the second quarter. Matt Hogan missed the extra-point attempt to leave the Cougars with a 13-7 lead.
ECU missed a field goal on the next possession, and the Cougars quickly moved into scoring position. But Keenum was intercepted by safety Levin Neal in the end zone, and the Pirates were given new life.
ECU didn’t waste the opportunity, marching 80 yards in seven plays and taking a 14-13 lead on Giavanni Ruffin’s 5-yard touchdown run with 4:21 left in the second quarter.
The Cougars went right back to work. Keenum led them on a 13-play, 74-yard drive that ended with his 21-yard touchdown pass to Tyron Carrier with 25 seconds left in the first half. But Hogan missed his second consecutive extra-point attempt, leaving the Cougars with a 19-14 lead as the teams headed into the locker room at halftime.