Tulsa Hammers ECU 49-24
Zach Smith threw for 331 yard and five touchdowns to five different receivers and Tulsa rolled past ECU 49-24 to close out the season for Senior Day in Greenville.
Smith completed an economical 21 of 30 passes and running back Shamari Brooks rolled up 202 yards rushing including his longest of 64 yards for an average of 12.6 per carry.
“It means so much to finish off the year on a positive note. I’ve said it all year, we’re a good football team. I know our record doesn’t indicate that, but we’ve had opportunities in there and our seniors have been great," said Tulsa head coach Phillip Montgomery.
Holton Ahlers passed for 308 yards and three touchdowns for the Pirates. Two of them went to Blake Proehl and C.J. Johnson got the third, but most of it happened after the game was largely out of reach. After the game, a disappointed first year ECU head coach Mike Houston gave Tulsa full credit and outlined the lay of the land moving forward for a Pirate team that is still trying to find its sea legs.
“Obviously a disappointing day and a disappointing end to this first season together. It’s disappointing because we have higher expectations for our program than this and you know, that is a positive,” said Houston.
“We expect to be competitive with any team in this league. We expect to go out and play games at a very, very high level and be able to win any given Saturday and because of the expectations that we have created within the program, days like today are very disappointing.”
While Tulsa(4-8/2-6 AAC) had the most penalties of the two teams with twelve, ECU’s seven flags seemed to come at all the wrong times, both preventing and eliminating any momentum the Pirates would have otherwise had.
“At the end of the day, too many mistakes on the defensive side of the football resulted in explosive plays and those are things you cannot have and is something we’ve worked very hard to correct all throughout this year. It’s something that we have to get fixed,” Houston stated.
“Offensively we couldn’t find a rhythm there in the first half. We made some plays here and there and we did finally put some points on the board in the second half, but it’s very much a complementary game. Offense, defense and special teams all have to play together and we just weren’t able to do that today.”
Houston noted that next Tuesday is the one year anniversary of the day he was hired at ECU(4-8/1-7 AAC) and he feels the program is in better shape than it was a year ago. He talked about what he told his team in the locker room after the game.
“I talked to the seniors first about just what they mean to the program. How much this stings today but when they look back on this, they know how much we have accomplished this year,” Houston told PirateIllustrated.com, “Is this where we want and expect to be? No. But that shows growth too because we expect to win that ballgame out there. The returning players and coaches, it’s our job to pick the torch up in January.”
“I told them that this feeling right here stinks. It hurts deep down inside so that’s why in January you have to understand that you’re going to be pushed. We’ve got to develop, push and continue to bring the program to a higher level.”
After a 51-yard Jake Verity field goal got the scoring started late in the first quarter, Tulsa answered with a 66-yard Zach Smith bomb to Sam Crawford with 1:06 to go in the first quarter that seemed to set the tone for the rest of the contest. Crawford led Tulsa with five catches for 93 yards along with five more from senior Keenen Johnson who was playing in his final regular season game.
Blake Proehl got in the act for ECU with eight catches for 89 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Tyler Snead had seven and C.J. Johnson added six grabs for a game high 141 yards when he wasn’t getting grabbed by Tulsa secondary defenders.
But it was early in the second half with the Pirates down 21-3 that momentum seemingly swung to Tulsa for good. The Pirates got a stop and on the first play from scrimmage, Ahlers pitched to Jsi Hatfield who looked to pass but when it wasn’t there he tried to tuck it under and run in the opposite direction and coughed up the football. Tulsa turned it into quick points on a TK Wilkerson ten yard touchdown that put the Golden Hurricane out 28-3 and the rest was history.
“We had some momentum right there. We had a take a shot play called and a freshman was an integral player right there and he made a mistake in fundamentals right there and put it on the ground. Obviously that was a situation where we wanted to be very aggressive. Coming out of the half, we got a stop. You get the turnover and now you have a chance to take a shot and get back into the ballgame. Unfortunately we gave it back to them.”
After Proehl’s touchdown for ECU made it 28-10, Tulsa reeled off two straight touchdowns in a five minute period on a 2-yard Brooks catch and a 12-yard Corey Taylor scoring run and suddenly it was 42-10, putting the game out of reach.
“I don’t think they showed anything that we were not expecting,” center Brandon Pena told PI, “They have a good D-end and they have some good corners, but we’ve faced good players all season. I think what really happened is we couldn’t get the ball room, there was no rhythm offensively in the first half. We had a little bit of spark at times but you’ve got to be rhythmic the whole game if you want to win.”
For memorable senior defensive end Alex Turner, this was a bitter end to a good overall career at East Carolina. He talked about what he felt went wrong defensively against Tulsa.
“I think the biggest thing that gave us difficulty was that we couldn’t scrape over and get into the gaps that we were supposed to. I think we just couldn’t get into the right coverages and the post safety wasn’t back there to help the corner and tackling was another issue. We just couldn’t get back there, wrap up and drive our feet on contact and they were getting yards after contact. That just messes up your defense.”
Turner says that while it will take some time, the future is bright for ECU football and he was glad to be a part of it over these past four seasons.
“I think Coach Houston is done a great job of coming in and honestly cleaning a lot of stuff up. Quite honestly when I came in as a freshman in Coach Mo’s freshman recruiting class there were a lot of issues in the program already and over the years it has also built up, but I think Coach Houston has done a great job of coming in and making this place look like a championship culture,” said Turner.
“You can look around and he has changed the habits of players, changing their attitude and making us work differently than we ever have. I think the program is going to turn around and I’m glad that I have had a part in that.”