With midnight approaching and Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium now empty on a frigid Saturday night, ECU head coach Scottie Montgomery, surrounded by reporters, stood just a few yards from where his team’s fate was sealed moments earlier, searching for answers.
His Pirates had rewarded the few remaining from an already-sparse crowd on Military Appreciation Night by climbing out of a 10-point fourth-quarter hole, driving 89 yards to score with 36 seconds left and forcing overtime. The game between two teams with a combined five wins then came down to two fourth-and-one plays.
With ECU’s defense zeroed in on running back Dontrell Hilliard, who already had turned in a career night with 189 yards and a pair of touchdowns, Tulane called on quarterback Jonathan Banks to make a play, and he zipped 16 yards for a score.
The Pirates, seeking to answer and facing fourth down from the 1, sent a freshman with five yards on five carries on the night straight up the gut into a mass of white and green. Darius Pinnix never really had a chance, and ECU’s hopes of extending the game ended one yard short.
Unlike a string of blowouts leading to a now 2-8 record, Montgomery and the Pirates knew this one, a 31-24 defeat, was one that got away.
“It is a whole lot of disappointment,” the second-year head coach said. “It came down to a fourth-and-1 for the defense to win it and a fourth-and-1 for our offense to win it, so if you get those situations, you see how critical each play of the game is. We battled, probably like we have never battled since I have been here to get back into this game. Defense, offense get into that two-minute drill and score. Just sick to my stomach about not being able to get it in at the end.”
History certainly was on ECU’s side coming in. Tulane had visited Greenville eight times and left eight times a loser. The Green Wave also came into Saturday’s game on a four-game losing streak and still smarting from a 17-16 loss to Cincinnati, which comes to Greenville next Saturday with just seven wins in its last 22 games.
The Pirates’ defense did something it had not done all year — create three turnovers in the same game. ECU also got its first 100-yard rusher since the 11th game of last year with Hussein Howe amassing a career-high 108 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown.
But none of those vital ingredients produced a recipe for victory.
ECU converted two turnovers in Tulane territory into just three points — one opportunity died on a fourth-down incompletion at the 5 — and handed the ball right back to the Green Wave with an interception after Jalen Price’s pick of a tipped pass set the Pirates up at their 47.
“Disappointing in all of those situations,” Montgomery said.
ECU’s ever-changing rotation in the backfield and evolving role of once-starting quarterback Thomas Sirk keeps the offense from establishing a rhythm or identity.
Howe got the bulk of the work Saturday but was on the sidelines on the game-deciding play. Derrell Scott had an electric 27-run but only had two total carries for 29 yards. Devin Anderson had five chances for 28 yards, and Pinnix had six carries for five yards. Clemson transfer Tyshon Dye did not play for the third time in four games.
Sirk, standing in the cold on the sideline much of the night, came in on the third play of a series with ECU at the Tulane 42 and rushed for 2 yards. He came back in on fourth-and-2 and misfired on a pass to Pinnix.
With the Pirates needing three yards to tie in overtime, four different players got a shot. Howe gained one on first down, Gardner Minshew threw an incompletion on second, and Anderson was forced out at the 1 on third down before Pinnix was stopped on fourth down.
Montgomery said several options were in the mix for the final play. Minshew had missed on two straight and was less than 50 percent for the night (25 of 53) , so putting the ball in the hands of Pinnix seemed like the best option.
“We practice these goal-line situations, of course, and Darius is the guy,” Montgomery said. “ … We’ve got to be able to get a half a yard.”
Instead Montgomery pondered how to get another victory to match last year’s three-win total while Tulane’s Willie Fritz became the first Green Wave coach to walk out of Dowdy-Ficklen a winner.
“We had to work really hard to get it,” Fritz said. “… I’m just really proud of our guys. That was a tough loss for us last week. We had to sit there and swallow it for a whole week. I’m glad we got out of here with a W.”