PirateIllustrated - ECU Falls 34-30 To Tulsa
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ECU Falls 34-30 To Tulsa

Juan-Carlos Santana scores on a 39-yard reception in the fourth quarter to give Tulsa their first lead of the game.
Juan-Carlos Santana scores on a 39-yard reception in the fourth quarter to give Tulsa their first lead of the game.

T.K. Wilkerson’s one-yard touchdown dive with 29 seconds to go proved to be the difference in a 34-30 Tulsa comeback victory over shell shocked East Carolina Friday night.

It was one of two Wilkerson touchdowns runs in his 89 yards of rushing over the course of the evening to go along with 253 yards passing and two touchdowns from quarterback Zach Smith in the Golden Hurricane victory.

Tulsa was the beneficiary of several close replay calls late in the contest that ultimately kept drives alive long enough to score the winning points.

Holton Ahlers passed for 330 yards and three touchdowns in his return under center for ECU. Tyler Snead pulled down 16 catches for 108 yards and a touchdown and Rahjai Harris rushed for 118 yards but in the end it was not enough to hold off a hot Tulsa team that got off to a slow start but improved to 4-1 with the win.

With the loss, East Carolina falls to 1-4 on the season.

Pirate head coach Mike Houston was patient but not at all pleased with how things went down the stretch and said ECU athletic director Jon Gilbert was in the process of getting in touch with the league office after the game. A pair of late replay reviews went Tulsa’s way, both of which could have gone either way.

"We should be sitting here singing the fight song right now," said Houston afterward.

“The pass interference call is a judgement call on fourth down. Obviously there must have been something there. You usually don’t see that call on fourth down, so it must have been pretty blatant for them to throw a flag right there,” said Houston, “The fumble that was ruled a fumble on the field, it must have been very obviously because they usually wouldn’t overturn that late in a ballgame like that unless it was obvious the arm was down before it came out.”

“The last pass, the video they showed on the Jumbotron shows the ball bouncing. You could clearly see it hit the ground before or even as he was making the catch, so I don’t understand how that was ruled a catch. As coaches we were talking about how much time we had left and how we were going to kill the clock. Our kids are absolutely devastated.”

“It’s one that I sure don’t understand,” said Houston after the game when asked if it was his worst loss as a coach, “I just don’t know what to say to my kids right now. I’ve never had that happen.”

ECU led 17-3 in a first half in a game that could have easily found the Pirates up by thirty points or more. But Tulsa was able to limit the Pirates’ offensive damage to field goals twice at the fifteen yard line then a pair of first half fumbles cut two other productive drives short of pay dirt.

While ECU continues to show marked improvement on both sides of the football on almost a weekly basis, the Pirates remain snake bitten and another close loss was little consolation. It was yet another bitter pill to swallow for a team that already entered the game frustrated and in dire need of a victory.

“I’ve been saying all along that the improvement is there, but it’s going to happen,” Houston told PirateIllustrated.com after the game, “As long as these kids stick together and keep fighting for each other it’s going to happen, but I’m tired of saying that though. We’re all ready to celebrate. We’re ready to get over the hump. We talked about it a couple of weeks ago.”

The Pirates return home next Saturday for a high noon matchup with the Green Wave of Tulane on ESPN+.


Warren Saba was at it again in the Pirate secondary with another early interception of an errant Zach Smith pass on the first play from scrimmage for Tulsa. That led to 16-yard Holton Ahlers to Tyler Snead hookup and an early 7-0 ECU lead.

ECU squandered a pair of promising drives with a pair of fumbles that were quickly following a pair of Pirate defensive stops. But Tulsa eventually capitalized on the second opportunity with a 35-yard Zack Long field goal that cut the Pirate lead to 7-3.

C.J. Johnson then got in the act on a 25-yard scoring strike from Holton Ahlers to cap a 90-yard ECU drive for a 14-3 lead. Then Jake Verity’s 46-yard field goal late in the half pushed the ECU lead to 17-3.

Holton Ahlers completed 18 of 20 passes in the first half alone with a pair of touchdown tosses for the Pirates. Rahjai Harris rushed for 75 yards on just twelve carries in the first two quarters for ECU.

Meanwhile the Pirate defense limited Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith to just 59 first half passing yards, forced two interceptions and held Tulsa to just 109 first half total yards.

Tulsa got untracked early in the third quarter with a Smith to Stokes touchdown pass in a five play, 78-yard drive that quickly trimmed the ECU lead to 17-10.

Jake Verity’s 22-yard field goal made it 20-10 ECU after an apparent C.J. Johnson touchdown snag in the back of the end zone was ruled out of bounds.

T.K. Wilkerson then scored for Tulsa on a 13-yard touchdown run up the middle on fourth-and-three in the ECU red zone and suddenly the Golden Hurricane was back in business at 20-17 with 6:19 to go in the third quarter.

Tulsa then tied the game two minutes later when a Justin Wright interception of a short Holton Ahlers pass near the line of scrimmage at the ECU negative five yard line led to a 21-yard Zack Long field goal. That was followed by a blocked ECU field goal attempt after the Pirates were unable to score at the Tulsa four yard line.

Verity’s subsequent 38-yard East Carolina field goal made it 23-20 with 12:34 to play.

But JuanCarlos Santana’s 39-yard touchdown catch on a Zach Smith dart gave Tulsa their first lead of the night at 27-23 with 9:13 remaining.

Holton Ahlers’ four-yard touchdown strike to Rahjai Harris got ECU back on top at 30-27 with 4:24 to go.

Then Tulsa received a huge break late in the game when an apparent ECU fumble recovery was ruled down on contact to keep a Golden Hurricane drive alive at the ECU 35 yard line with just over a minute to go. That led to a one-yard T.K. Wilkerson touchdown to seal the victory.