Shane Carden threw for two touchdowns.
By Bill Woodward
NEW ORLEANS, La. Nov. 17, 2012 – They call him Coach Ruff. After Saturday, third-year coach Ruffin McNeill can also be called a winner at East Carolina.
East Carolina secured a winning season with a 28-23 victory over Tulane in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, improving to 7-4 overall and 6-1 in Conference USA. With their regular-season finale on Friday at home against Marshall and a bowl game left in the season, the Pirates have given McNeill his first winning season since returning to his alma mater.
McNeill, a four-year letterman for the Pirates as a player from 1976-79, posted records of 6-7 and 5-7 in his first two seasons as ECU head coach after coming back to North Carolina from Texas Tech. Now, his squad has a shot at nine victories – thanks to a determined defense and offensive drives in clutch situations against Tulane (2-9, 2-5).
“I’m proud of our team and I am proud of where we are program-wise,” McNeill said. “I am proud of where we are intangible-wise, the no-ego, no-entitlement attitude, the teamwork. Our kids believe in that, they believe in each other and they believe in their coaches.”
Shane Carden rushed for one touchdown, passed for two more and the Pirates took control with a solid defensive effort in the second half – sacking Tulane quarterback Ryan Griffin four times. The Pirates limited the Green Wave to nine net yards rushing, forcing Griffin to pass 57 times.
“We had to do a couple of things,” McNeill said of the second-half effort by his defense. “Stop the run, affect the quarterback by bat-downs and sacks and reroute [their receivers] on the back end. We did that.
“I was proud of our defense. I was proud of our offense for sticking it in [when they had to]. It was a team win.”
Ahead 14-13 at halftime on a 7-yard pass from Carden to Justin Hardy and a 5-yard run for a touchdown by Carden, the Pirates started the second half with a strong statement.
After limiting Tulane to a three-and-out on its first series of the half, the Pirates drove 56 yards in six plays to go ahead 21-13.
Tulane cut the lead to 21-16 late in the third quarter on a 26-yard field goal by Cairo Santos, but ECU answered with a 79-yard drive in the fourth quarter that gave the Pirates some breathing room.
Vintavious Cooper, who finished with 87 yards on 15 carries, was a workhorse in the drive – gaining 32 yards on five carries in the march. Carden finished the drive off with an 11-yard TD strike to Andrew Bodenheimer on a slant pattern, and the Pirates led 28-13 with 4:29 left.
Carden, a sophomore and first-year starter, finished 19-for-33 for 215 yards, but two interceptions both ended drives into Tulane territory.
“That was a big-time throw to [Bodenheimer],” McNeill said. “Shane is still a young quarterback, still developing. He led us, he never got down. He’ll bounce back and have a great game next week.”
Tulane made it interesting in the final four minutes. Griffin (36-for-57 for 293 yards) connected with Wilson Van Hooser on a 31-yard touchdown pass with 1:22 remaining. The pass was first ruled incomplete, but it was determined after a review that Van Hooser caught the ball before stepping out of the back of the end zone.
Bodenheimer sealed the victory by recovering an onside kick on one hop. The Pirates took a knee three times to run out the final 1:22.
East Carolina won its fifth straight game against Tulane and ninth out of its last 10 meetings with the Green Wave. The Pirates also moved into a tie for first place with Central Florida in the East Division of C-USA, but need a victory over Marshall and a UCF loss to UAB next week to gain a spot in the league championship game. UCF handed East Carolina its only conference loss of the season.
The Pirates rushed for 180 yards, getting 56 from Bullock and 36 from Carden in addition to Cooper’s 87. But Tulane made it tough on the Pirates, totaling 302 yards of offense to ECU’s 387 and playing turnover-free football.
East Carolina countered with an aggressive defense that kept the Wave off balance, particularly in the second half. Three of the Pirates’ four sacks in the second half came on third down – including one that stalled a Green Wave drive that had reached the ECU 28. A 12-yard loss on the sack by Terrel Stanley moved Tulane out of field-goal range.
“I am very proud of our kids,” McNeill said. “I am proud of the way we fought. We played a very emotional football team tonight.
“To be able to come down here and take this one and go 6-1 in the conference and 7-4 overall, it was a big win for us.”
And a big win for Coach Ruff. A “W” that locked up his first winning season as coach of the Pirates.