HOUSTON — ECU quarterback Gardner Minshew set career highs in four passing categories.
Two receivers turned in personal-best performances.
The Pirates ran 50 more plays (98-48), had more first downs (33-16) and total yards (504-472), and dominated time of possession (40:23-19:27).
None of that came close to adding up to a win on Saturday.
Houston staggered ECU with a 21-point first quarter, then struck for two long touchdown passes in the second half to ward off a brief rally and roll to a 52-27 American Athletic Conference win at TDECU Stadium.
Three turnovers and a porous defense doomed the Pirates (2-7,1-4 AAC) and knocked them out of bowl contention for a third straight year. The Cougars (6-3, 4-2 AAC) become bowl eligible for the fifth straight season and 11th time in the last 13 years.
An ECU defense that entered Saturday’s game last in the FBS at 45.9 points per game surrendered at least 50 points for the fifth time. The 52 points marked a season-high for Houston.
ECU found itself in catchup mode again after giving up 21 first-quarter points for the fourth time this year. Minshew enter after starter Thomas Sirk threw a first-quarter interception and set career-highs in completions (52), attempts (68), passing yards (463) and touchdown passes (3). His 52 completions also set a conference record.
Trevon Brown set career-highs in receptions (11), receiving yards (141) and all-purpose yards (227), and Quay Johnson set career-highs in receptions (14) and receiving yards (115).
Houston quarterback D’Eriq King also threw for three touchdowns and ran for a score, a 2-yarder that gave the Cougars a 7-0 lead on its first possession. He finished 15 of 21 for 330 yards.
Houston receivers Steven Dunbar and Linell Bonner combined for 13 catches for 318 yards and two touchdowns. Dunbar had six catches for a career-high 171 yards, and Bonner added seven catches for 147 yards and a touchdown.
Houston scored on three of its first four possessions in the first quarter, marching 75 yards in 11 plays, scoring on a 22-run by Duke Catalon one play after an interception and driving 81 yards in eight plays to lead 21-0.
The Pirates’ next four possessions bridging the second and third quarters resulted in 50 plays, 274 yards, 17 points and nearly 20 minutes in time of possession, but the margin never dipped below double digits..
ECU drove to the Houston 2 before settling for a 22-yard Jake Verity field goal, then Houston quickly answered with Mulbah Car’s 1-yard run capping a 75-yard drive for a 28-3 lead. Verity missed a 37-yarder at the end of the half after ECU got within 28-10 on Brown’s 34-yard touchdown grab.
Brown’s 9-yard touchdown catch on the opening drive of the third quarter drew the Pirates within 28-17, but Houston needed just one play to answer with Dunbar hauling in a pass from King on a slant and racing 75 yards.
A 62-yard pass on a crossing pattern to Bonner two plays after an ECU fumble dealt the knockout blow and put Houston up 42-17.
Brand McDowell’s 74-yard interception return in the fourth quarter turned the Pirates’ third turnover into seven points and put Houston up 52-17.
Verity nailed a 52-yard field goal and Minshew threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Johnson with 2:48 left.
ECU returns to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium next Saturday to host Tulane at 7 p.m.