East Carolina Tops Memphis in Overtime To Gain Bowl Eligibility
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East Carolina Bowl Eligible After 30-29 Overtime Win In Memphis

Holton Ahlers and ECU top Memphis 30-29 in overtime for the Pirates' sixth win of the season.
Holton Ahlers and ECU top Memphis 30-29 in overtime for the Pirates' sixth win of the season. (The Memphis Commercial Appeal/USAToday photo)

In a back and forth matchup between ECU and Memphis, the Pirates came up big when it counted, earning a 30-29 overtime victory inside Liberty Bowl Stadium.

The win gives East Carolina(6-4/4-2 AAC) bowl eligibility for the first time since 2014 and snaps a 17-game November Memphis win streak.

Keaton Mitchell's 24-yard touchdown helped ECU capture a 30-23 lead in overtime. Then when Rodriguez Clark’s 20-yard Memphis touchdown matched it, the Tigers opted to go for two rather than kick the extra point and the Pirate defense got the big stop on an incomplete pass to seal the win.

“The kicker has struggled all year which is the reason I called the timeout to give him a little more time to think about it. So The first thing I told them (in the timeout) was don’t be shocked of they go for two right here,” said ECU head coach Mike Houston, “So our kids had the call, coach had the call and we talked about it. He had the perfect call, our kids played it well and they did a great job right there in the end zone of not allowing a jump ball. We got pressure on the quarterback and I’m proud of them. They did their job.”

After what has been a pressure packed week for Houston, he expressed his relief and excitement after grabbing one of ECU’s bigger wins in several years.

“I’m ecstatic to say the least. When I took the job three years ago, I kind of wrote down some goals and one of the top goals was to get us back bowl eligible and I kind of put a date on it and so we made it. So it was this year,” said Houston, “I just felt like that was reasonable for us to get the program where we should be competing for bowl games.”

“I’m very grateful to be here and it’s what I wanted to do when I took the job. I believe in East Carolina University, I believe in what this program can be and we all have a vision and a dream for Pirate football and there’s no other place that I’d rather be.”

“What a job by our kids today. You’re down four on the road late in the fourth quarter. To put together a drive and have our offense stick it in, get some stops there defensively - you know, I would have loved to end it in regulation and we almost did, but what a great celebration in overtime.”

In a game where ECU kept the ball for 42:47 of the sixty minutes, the Pirates got 313 yards passing from Holton Ahlers, 81 yards of rushing from Keaton Mitchell, 69 more from Rahjai Harris and 113 yards on 13 catches from Tyler Snead. ECU generated 502 yards of total offense to 341 for Memphis. The Pirates went 18 of 32 in third down conversions and ran 102 plays to 53 for the Tigers.

A relieved Holton Ahlers expressed his excitement after getting the Pirates back to six wins for the first time in six years.

“I can’t even explain it, this is the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” said Ahlers, “I’m just so blessed to be a part of this program and be a part of Greenville and this team. They’re just a bunch of fighters. To be part of this and be a part of the change, I’m just so blessed and all of these guys are.”

“I knew that once we got five (wins) that we weren’t going to not get six, so we’ve just got to go on from here. It’s a huge one, but 8-4 sounds a whole lot better than 6-6 or 7-5 so we’ve just got to keep winning, keep fighting and I’m so proud of this team.”

Down by four points, East Carolina came up big offensively in the last four minutes of regulation with a Rahjai Harris one-yard touchdown that capped a 16-play, 75 yard drive to give the Pirates a late 23-20 lead.

“We’ve just got a lot of fighters. We weren’t doing good in the red zone. They were blitzing just about everyone. I had to get the ball out quick, then we ran the ball. When you’re blitzing nine guys it’s hard too,” said Ahlers, “It just shows the fight of this team. Some of these guys have been a part of this thing for so long and the last time they came here it was not pretty at all.”

“The composure that our kids had, there is no bigger pressure situation than that,” said Houston, “You’re down and your season and goals are on the line and we talk about it constantly. It’s just one play at a time - focus on doing your job. Get the play called, communicate, get lined up and do your job. The decision making by him (Ahlers) on that drive and the plays the kids made were just incredible.”

ECU could have taken a lot more time off the play clock in the process and not doing so gave Memphis 1:29 and three timeouts to try to score late which they did on a 24-yard David Kemp field goal to tie the game as time expired in regulation.

The Pirates did a good job of getting to the red zone offensively for most of the game, but had difficulty parlaying it into touchdowns when they got there. ECU had to settle for several field goals along with giving up an interception in the Memphis end zone that halted another drive that kept Memphis in the game.

After an ECU defensive stop on the first Tiger possession of the game and a subsequent Holton Ahlers interception, Memphis(5-5/3-3 AAC) struck first on a Seth Henigan to Asa Martin touchdown hookup, good for 31 yards and a 7-0 lead.

ECU answered with a proficient, efficient, twelve play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a two-yard Holton Ahlers touchdown keeper that tied the game at 7-7.

After a 65-yard drive stalled in the red zone, Owen Daffer’s 24-yard field goal gave the Pirates their first lead of the game at 10-7.

Then with three minutes to go in the half, Memphis stuffed a 19-play drive, blitzing and eventually sacking Ahlers for a big loss deep in Tiger territory. That forced an Owen Daffer 28-yard field goal that gave East Carolina a 13-7 lead.

Two plays from scrimmage later, Seth Henigan’s 75-yard strike to wide receiver Eddie Lewis allowed Memphis to tie the game at 13-13 lead after a missed PAT attempt from David Kemp.

A 23-yard Holton Ahlers pass on third down to Ryan Jones put ECU in a first and goal situation on the three-yard line with 28 seconds to go in the half. But Memphis stuffed the drive on three straight defensive stops and forced Owen Daffer’s third field goal for a 16-13 halftime lead.

Ahlers went 15 for 28 for 182 yards with one interception along with 41 rushing yards to lead the Pirate first half rushing game. Seth Henigan completed 6-11 for 131 yards and two Memphis touchdowns while ECU held the Tigers to just 21 net yards rushing in the first two quarters.

Memphis and ECU traded interceptions in the third quarter including Jacobi Francis’ second pick of the day in the end zone of an Ahlers pass on third down.

The Tigers then drove 80 yards in eight plays and scored on an inside shuttle pitch to tight end Sean Dykes as Memphis recaptured the lead 19-16.

Next week, ECU heads to Annapolis seeking to pick up their seventh win of the season when the Pirates take on Navy who had a bye week this week. Game time is set for 3:30 pm on CBS Sports Network.