C-USA Football: East Carolina 25, Southern Miss 20
By Joedy McCreary
GREENVILLEó C.J. Wilson blocked the kick, scooped the ball and took off for the goal line. Nothing was going to stop him from securing one final home game at East Carolina.
The Pirates claimed home-field advantage for the Conference USA championship game by beating Southern Mississippi 25-20 on Saturday, with the final momentum swing coming on Wilson’s return of a blocked extra point for the tiebreaking two-point conversion.
Patrick Pinkney was 25 of 41 passing for 269 yards and Dwayne Harris and defensive tackle Linval Joseph had scoring runs for East Carolina (8-4, 7-1), which beat the Golden Eagles in Greenville for the first time since 1994. Now the defending league champion welcomes the West winner ó either No. 25 Houston or SMU ó to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with the winner of that game claiming a spot in the Liberty Bowl.
“The seniors, we said, ‘This isn’t our Senior Night,”‘ Wilson said. “Next week is our Senior Night, and we believed until the end.”
Damion Fletcher had 60 yards rushing for Southern Miss (7-5, 5-3), and his 3-yard touchdown pass to Leroy Banks made it 20-all with 7:35 to play.
But Wilson burst through the middle to block Daniel Hrapmann’s PAT, pushed the kicker out of the way to grab the ball near the 25-yard line and raced downfield while being escorted by a convoy of blockers to put the Pirates up 22-20.
“That unit has continued to let the football team down throughout the entire year,” Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said of a kick team that also allowed Houston to block a PAT and return it for two.
Ben Hartman made it a five-point game with his third field goal of the day, a 47-yarder with 4:37 remaining. Martevious Young couldn’t bring the Golden Eagles past midfield in both of their possessions after that, with Steve Spence sacking him on the final play of the game.
Tory Harrison rushed 41 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter, Young finished 20 of 44 for 262 yards with a score and DeAndre Brown had 145 yards receiving on seven catches for Southern Miss.
The Golden Eagles, trying to reach the C-USA title game for the first time since 2006, rallied from 10 points down before ultimately slipping to 1-5 on the road this year and losing on East Carolina’s home field for just the third time in 18 appearances. The Pirates’ only two prior victories against Southern Miss in Conference USA play came in Hattiesburg.
“They have been our Achilles’ heel. They have been our nemesis,” East Carolina coach Skip Holtz said, adding that he told Fedora during a pregame chat that “this is what it needed to come down to, the two best teams in the East playing for all the marbles here in the very last game of the year.”
Harris put forth one of the Pirates’ best individual efforts of the season. After bobbling an end-around handoff, he recovered in time to run through a feeble tackling attempt and race 34 yards down the left sideline for his team-leading fifth touchdown, putting East Carolina up 10-7.
Then, Pinkney kept things rolling, completing five consecutive passes before his 12-yard scramble got the Pirates to the 5. Two plays later, Joseph ó a 322-pound defensive tackle who lined up at fullback ó plunged across the goal line to make it a 10-point game with about 51/2 minutes before halftime.
“These seniors and this football team, the way they continue to fight, the way they continue to believe, they continue to compete ó they never flinched today,” Holtz said. “There was never that look of concern. … It was like, ‘Hey, we’re getting it done.”‘
Southern Miss hit on a pair of huge gainers early ó both 40-yard passes from Young to Brown ó but could turn them into only seven points, a 17-yard scoring pass from Young to Freddie Parham that made it 7-3 late in the quarter. That came one possession after the Golden Eagles blew a golden scoring opportunity, when Fletcher fumbled at the 1.
“In a big game like this, you can’t miss those opportunities,” Fedora said. “When you have an opportunity to make plays, you have to make them. We didn’t. I don’t know why. There were enough plays where we had guys in position to put the ball in the end zone. We just didn’t.”