Quarterback Shane Carden had a rushing score and 76-yard touchdown pass.
By Bill Woodward
A few seconds later, they were watching Quincy McDuffie complete a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. McDuffie and the Knights never looked back, rolling to a 40-20 victory at Bright House Networks Stadium.
“We wanted to start fast.” East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. “I thought we had momentum and we lost it on the kickoff return. But we have to gain it back. We had opportunities to gain it back.
“But you can’t give up back-to-back big plays [on special teams]. You can’t do that against a good team like that. But we’ve got a good football team too.”
The Knights (3-2, 1-0 Conference USA) never let the Pirates (3-3, 2-1) get much momentum going after the kickoff return.
After McDuffie’s big play, the Pirates had to punt and J.J. Worten returned it 32 yards to the ECU 40. Storm Johnson capped an eight-play drive and the score was tied with 14:13 left in the second quarter.
From that point on, the Knights controlled the action, outscoring ECU 26-6.
McDuffie, a 5-10, 178-pounder with sprinter’s speed, had one more big play in him. And it again came at a pivotal time.
After Warren Harvey’s 31-yard field goal cut the score to 23-20 with 8:30 remaining in the third quarter, McDuffie took a screen pass 64 yards for a touchdown – simply running past the ECU defense after finding a crease just past the line of scrimmage.
That made it 30-20 with 6:38 remaining in the third quarter. And the Pirates were through scoring for the evening as the Knights kept pressure on Shane Carden the rest of the way.
On a fourth-and-four play from the UCF 26 with the Pirates trailing 37-20 and nine minutes left, Carden was sacked on a play that virtually ended the ECU hopes.
The Pirates were coming off a victory over UTEP on Saturday, but the short week might have taken its toll, McNeill said. The Knights’ offensive line seemed to wear the Pirates down as the game progressed.
“We rotated well all year long [in the defensive line],” McNeill said. “We were trying to keep them fresh. But it was our third game in 13 days. It’s been a tough road for us. We felt good going into the game. [UCF] did a good job offensively. They’ve always had a good offensive line, and we knew that coming into the game.
“But I’m not going to make excuses. Against a good team, you can’t make mistakes. If you lose the momentum, you have to capture it back.”
After a strong rushing performance against UTEP, the Pirates struggled on the ground against UCF.
Vintavious Cooper, who had 151 yards rushing against UTEP, was held to 58 yards on Thursday. The Pirates finished with 64 yards as a team – a figure that was hurt by Carden’s minus-18 yards, which included two sacks.
Carden passed for 298 yards, completing 23 of 36 passes. Hardy was his favorite receiver, with five catches for 119 yards.
But the Pirates had to settle for field goals twice after scoring the two quick touchdowns in the first half.
The first came on the final play of the half when Harvey kicked a 27-yarder that trimmed UCF’s lead to 20-17.
“We wanted to score touchdowns,” McNeill said. “We felt like we were right in it going in at half and at the beginning of the second half. But we had to settle for a field goal [again]. We felt like we were right in it again, but we gave up [McDuffie’s 64-yard] touchdown defensively and we never could get it back.”
Sophomore quarterback Blake Bortles had a strong game for the Knights. Bortles, a first-year starter like ECU’s Carden, completed 15 of 21 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown. He also was the Knights’ leading rusher with 62 yards on six carries.
East Carolina has bounced back from losses twice previously this season -beating Southern Miss after losing to South Carolinia and UTEP after being beaten by UNC. Now, the Pirates will try to do it again with a home game in nine days against Memphis.
“We’ll have to go back and look at the film and see what we did well,” McNeill said. “The biggest thing is we can’t let one game beat us twice. We have two days away, then come back to it on Sunday and prepare for Memphis.”