It was a picture-perfect senior day for the East Carolina football team on Saturday. From start to finish, the Pirates dominated the Alabama-Birmingham Blazers and won by their widest margin of the season, 63-14, at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Seven of the team’s nine touchdowns were scored by seniors, highlighted by stand-out performances from wide receiver Reese Wiggins and running back Vintavious Cooper.
Wiggins, who entered the game with just one touchdown grab on the season, caught three against the Blazers (2-8, 1-5 C-USA) and amassed a career-best 142 yards on his five receptions. Cooper rushed for 126 yards on 15 carries and found the end-zone three times as well.
Defensively, senior linebackers Kyle Tudor and Derrell Johnson each collected their first career interceptions against the Blazers. Tudor made his takeaway count with a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown, while Johnson compiled seven tackles in his 46th consecutive start.
“These (seniors) have been with me and my staff from the beginning and it is a great group. It was emotional when each guy ran out,” said ECU coach Ruffin McNeill. “To win in this fashion, with the seniors contributing like they did, it makes it special; especially at Dowdy-Ficklen (Stadium).”
ECU’s (8-2, 6-1 C-USA) 63 points and 625 yards Saturday are both season-highs and was predicated on the remarkably balanced play-calling of offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley.
Despite having two interceptions, quarterback Shane Carden was 21-of-31 on his passes for 347 yards and five touchdowns – marking the third time this season he has thrown for five scores in a game. Led by Cooper, ECU gained a season-high 278 yards on the ground. JUCO transfer Breon Allen added 92 rushing yards and an explosive 51-yard reception on a shovel-pass.
(JUCO transfer Breon Allen)
It did not appear any of these astronomical statistics would be possible early on in Saturday’s game. The Pirates were unable to score on their opening drive for the second consecutive week and a promising second drive was spoiled by one of Carden’s two interceptions. UAB cornerback Kelton Brackett picked off the pass at his own goal-line.
Later in the first quarter, Allen broke ECU out of its funk with his 51-yard catch down to the Blazers’ 15 yard-line. Four plays later, Carden hit Wiggins for a five-yard touchdown to open scoring. On their next offensive series, the duo caught UAB off-guard on a bubble-screen that ended in a 51-yard catch-and-run and another ECU touchdown.
UAB finally showed some resistance at the start of the second quarter. Blazers’ wide receiver Jamari Staples hauled in a spectacular 45-yard grab down to ECU’s 3 yard-line that was followed by running back Darrin Reaves barreling into the end-zone.
At this point, the Pirates’ lead was just 14-7, but that was as close as the Blazers would ever get.
In response to UAB getting on the board, ECU scored a touchdown on three of its last four possessions of the first half, including an 11-yard reception by Justin Hardy with just 23 seconds left until half-time. The Pirates went into recess leading the Blazers 35-7.
If the nail wasn’t already in the coffin, UAB went three-and-out to begin the second half and ECU marched 79 yards on eight plays, culminating with a four-yard touchdown run by Cooper.
Although the result was not in question about half-way through the third quarter, arguably the game’s most memorable play took place. Blazers’ quarterback Jonathan Perry – who finished 16-of-24 for 210 yards – was intercepted by Tudor, who was able to take it back to the house to make it 49-7 Pirates. It was a moment the senior inside linebacker said he would never forget.
“I always said I would have a sweet celebration after I score … but after that I was just getting bombarded by people and congratulated, it was surreal,” said Tudor. “It was just the perfect time, the perfect moment and I got a gift on that one.”
ECU coasted from that point on and was able to get several reserve players playing time. Instead of burning the red-shirt of freshman quarterback Kurt Benkert, sophomore John Weymann spelled Carden in the game’s final moments.
The Pirates will make their highly-anticipated trip to Raleigh next Saturday to face the N.C. State Wolfpack. The teams have not met since then freshman Damon Magazu picked off Russell Wilson in overtime, sealing an ECU win in 2010.
“It’s a great opportunity for this team to show what we’re about on a bigger stage than normal,” said Carden. “We’ve been excited about it. There’s no denying that we have been thinking about this game for a while.”
Kick-off time from Carter-Finley Stadium is set for 12:30 p.m.