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Second Half ECU Rally Leads to a 42-38 Victory Over Marshall

Pirate running back Keaton Mitchell bolts on an 88-yard touchdown run in ECU's 42-38 win over Marshall.
Pirate running back Keaton Mitchell bolts on an 88-yard touchdown run in ECU's 42-38 win over Marshall. (ECU Athletics photo)

Marshall marched down the field late down by four points after blowing a 17 point lead. Things looked dire for ECU with their backs against the wall defensively, but with eleven seconds to go Ja’Quan McMillian saved the day with his ninth career interception at the goal line and the Pirates held on for a memorable 42-38 comeback win in Huntington Saturday night.

“I kind of started the game off slow, but I came up big for my team,” said McMillian, “All the hard work we’ve put in, we deserved that win. All of those interceptions are from our defense having their hands in the quarterback’s face. Just getting that first win, that’s all it takes to get that ball rolling.”

ECU(1-2) heated up late offensively with a Holton Ahlers touchdown catch on a throwback from Tyler Snead. That cut a ten-point Marshall lead down to three. Then Owen Daffer’s successful onside kick and recovery gave the Pirates the football right back at the Marshall 47-yard line with a shot to win the contest.

A pass interference penalty in the end zone led to a two-yard Rahjai Harris touchdown and Daffer’s extra point marked 21 unanswered points as ECU took a 42-38 lead with just 55 seconds to go.

Ahlers threw for 368 yards and two scores, scored another one on the ground and caught a fourth for a touchdown from Snead to lead the Pirate offense along with 135 yards rushing from Keaton Mitchell. Tight end Shane Calhoun had his best game as a Pirate with eight catches for 114 yards along with five receptions each from Tyler Snead and Audie Omotosho who came up with several key, clutch catches of his own.

Grant Wells led the Thundering Herd, passing for 433 yards and a touchdown, but a pair of costly interceptions proved big in East Carolina’s defensive fortunes. Eight of those completions went to Corey Grammage who ended up with 180 yards in receptions.

It was one of the Pirates' better comebacks with over 500 yards of total offense. Mike Houston came away happy with the way his team stuck to it when they could have easily folded with his team down by three scores. Houston said he had a feeling that this game was not over with his team down 24-17 at halftime.

“You had that feeling at halftime that this game was going to go down to the wire. I know we got down 17 in the third quarter, but the kids never flinched. They kept fighting and I just felt like if we got them in the fourth quarter, they (Marshall) have not had to play a complete game all year,” said Houston.

“We’ve been in two dog fights and they’ve been done by the third quarter. We got them in the fourth quarter, our players were in better shape, better conditioning. We got the momentum and we just had guy after guy just make really gutsy plays down the stretch.”

Holton Ahlers tried to keep his offense ready to go all night and they just kept hanging around and making big play after big play late to seal the deal.

“We were down 17 and I got the offense together and said this is not over. We’re not going to lay down. We’re going to figure out who we are here and that’s what we did tonight,” said Ahlers, “If we could stop them, I knew we could score on them. We just kept believing. The offense balled out today. We did everything we can. We’ve always had fight. We’re a good football team, we showed that tonight. The line did extremely well tonight, they picked up the blitzes and the running back held their pass protection well and gave us time.”

Andrew Sanders’ 29-yard Marshall field goal got the scoring underway in the first quarter before Holton Ahlers answered with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Snead to give ECU their first lead of the night at 7-3.

The Pirate lead didn’t last long when quarterback Grant Wells found Willie Johnson on a 19-yard strike in the corner of the end zone as Marshall recaptured a 10-7 lead.

ECU struck back early in the second quarter with an 88-yard Keaton Mitchell touchdown run that put Pirates back up 14-10.

Rasheen Ali, who rushed for 189 yards and three touchdowns all told, scored on a 26-yard touchdown run before bulldozing his way into the end zone again for one-yard score to give the Thundering Herd a 24-14 lead. But with eight seconds to go in the half, Ahlers found big tight end Shane Calhoun for five yards and a score to cap a 13-play, 53-yard drive and trim the Marshall lead to just three at 24-21 at halftime.

Ali’s third touchdown of the evening came on a 49-yard run around the left side of the ECU defense with 10:23 to go in the third quarter. That expanded the Herd's working margin to ten points at 31-21.

Despite the fact that several things did not go their way, ECU finally got a huge break midway into the third quarter when Ja’Quan McMillian came up with the football after Teagan Wilk knocked the ball loose at the goal line on a 27-yard Corey Gammage reception that looked to be a sure touchdown otherwise.

A six-yard Grant Wells touchdown run grew the Thundering Herd lead to as much as 38-21 with just over a minute left in the third period. Holton Ahlers got ECU a little bit closer on a five-yard keeper on ECU’s longest drive of the game. The seven play, 78-yard drive cut the lead to ten at 38-28 with 7:31 to go and the Pirates came up big late in the game with a Ja'Quan McMillian interception at the goal line to end it.

The Pirates return home next Saturday to take on Charleston-Southern at 6 pm in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on ESPN+.

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