Shane Carden threw for a career-best 308 yards and five touchdowns against Memphis
By Bill Woodward
GREENVILLE, N.C. Oct. 13, 2012 – East Carolina displayed a one-two punch that devastated Memphis on Saturday night at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The Pirates cranked up their passing attack and the defense shut out the Tigers for 3½ quarters as ECU rolled to a 41-7 victory on a picture-perfect homecoming evening.
First-year starter Shane Carden, a redshirt sophomore, had his best game of the season at quarterback, passing for 308 yards and a career-high five touchdowns. Carden completed 25-of-33 passes without an interception and found Justin Jones for three scoring strikes and Justin Hardy twice for TDs.
“We just have to calm down as an offense and make routine plays,” Carden said. “And I thought we did that in the third quarter. We’ve been talking about, `Hey we can do this.’ And we showed it, we showed ourselves that we can play the offense that we know that we can play and we can play it the whole game.
“It’s just realizing how we can play if we play 11-man football. The first couple of drives in the second half we did that. It is reassuring to us that if we just do our job and not to try to do anything extra, we will score points.”
East Carolina bounced back from a loss at UCF, improving to 4-3 overall and 3-1 in Conference USA. Memphis dropped to 1-5 and 1-1.
Similarly to a week ago, the Pirates jumped a quick 14-0 lead. But unlike against UCF when the Pirates lost the momentum immediately after a kickoff was returned 99 yards for a touchdown, ECU stayed the course for the entire game against the Tigers.
The offense was in neutral in the second quarter, netting only a field goal, and the Pirates lost a pair of fumbles in the first half, including one at its own 22-yard line. But the ECU defense kept the Tigers from capitalizing, and that kept the momentum in the Pirates’ corner.
“I was proud of how we responded,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. “Last week we learned if we get momentum to keep it, but if you lose it to try and regain it. I thought the kids were aware of that during the game.
“I was pleased with our defense, the way they hung in there and did a good job. You hate to see [Memphis] score late, but I thought they did a very solid job against a team that moved the ball well against Rice last week. And Rice had been playing very well.”
Junior Gabriel Woullard led the defense, making 10 tackles with 1½ sacks and two tackles for losses. Senior Daniel Drake also had 10 tackles. The Pirates forced a pair of fumbles, recovering both of them while limiting Memphis to 281 yards of total offense.
“I thought they did a good job of playing assignment football,” McNeill said. “I thought [the defensive coaches] had a really good, simplified plan where the players could run where the kids and not so much think, but run and make plays.”
It was a night for the Pirates’ passing attack to shine.
Hardy had six catches for 137 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown catch on the Pirates’ third play from scrimmage to get Carden and the Pirates off the ground. Carden hit Jones on a 39-yard TD on the Pirates’ second possession of the game – a play in which Carden just threw it into the end zone and let the 6-foot-8 Jones out jump a shorter defender.
“The offense did a good job of making some plays, which is what you have to do,” McNeill said. “Justin and Justin stand out because they made some big plays.
“The offense was able to control the ball, move the ball down the field and get some points. I thought we did a good job of third-down conversions on both sides of the ball.”
Third-down conversions were a telling statistic. ECU was able to convert 7-of-14 (50 percent) and hold Memphis to just 4-of-16 (25 percent).
A week after the special teams struggled against UCF, that unit also turned in a big game. Memphis flashes one of the top returners in the nation in Bobby McCain, who had posted consecutive 100-yard return games coming into the ECU game.
ECU made some changes in its kick return team, and it paid dividends. McCain was held to 81 yards on four returns.
“I thought our special teams did a good job coming back after a tough week against Central Florida and doing a good job against two of the top returners in the country,” McNeill said, referring to McCain and Memphis punter returner Keiwone Malone.
“The personnel changes that we made, those guys did a good job of stepping up.”
Sacks continued to be a problem for the Pirates, who gave up six for the game. That contributed to a first half when the Pirates had minus-9 yards on the ground.
But Vintavious Cooper got going in the third quarter, breaking a 30-yard run in a drive that culminated with a 45-yard field goal from Warren Harvey that pushed the ECU advantage to 20-0. Cooper finished with 96 yards rushing on 16 carries.
On the Pirates’ next possession, a short Memphis punt and a 17-yard return by Hardy set up ECU at the Memphis 23.
Four plays later, Carden hit Hardy from 11 yards out to put the Pirates up 27-0.
ECU made it a 17-point quarter when Carden exploited single coverage on Jones, lofting a pass to his big receiver in the left corner of the end zone. It was 34-0 and the rout was on.
Memphis didn’t score until the fourth quarter, when Jai Steib went in from three yards out for the final 41-7 score.
The Pirates had some problems holding on to the football, fumbling five times. But they lost only two of them.
“We have done a good job of the taking care of the ball past two weeks,” McNeill said. “I don’t know what it was. It looked like the ball was slipping out of Shane’s hands sometimes. But I’ll take that percentage any time.”
It was a confidence-building game for the Pirates, an 18-point favorite over the Tigers. The Pirates didn’t give in to the temptation to just go through the motions against an outmanned opponent. Instead, they built some momentum for what they hope is a strong finish to the season.
Next up is a road game against Conference USA foe UAB (1-5, 0-2).
“We hope this momentum carries into next week and plan on it carrying into next week,” McNeill said. “UAB has played a pretty tough schedule like we have.
“I know our players believe in what we are working on and attempting not to make the same mistakes twice. We are playing smart and we are playing together.”