East Carolina, with no answers in four previous AAC double-digit losses, came up with two school-record performances and eight scoring responses to take No. 17-ranked Cincinnati down to the final seconds.
The AAC East-leading Bearcats needed a 32-yard field goal from Sam Crosa as time expired to pull out 46-43 victory before 32,273 fans Saturday night at Dowdy–Ficklen Stadium.
“Our locker room is very quiet,” ECU coach Mike Houston said after the game. “They invested a lot. When you invest a lot it hurts when you don’t achieve what you set out to achieve. But that’s part of sport. I told them this continue to validate everything we’re doing. The kids had great week of practice. They pushed themselves to get better every day. We’re leaning on our core principals to get better.”
ECU sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers set a school record with 535 yards passing and true freshman receiver C.J. Johnson had 283 yards in receptions, setting both ECU and AAC records.
The Pirates tied the game 43-43 with 1:10 left to play on Jake Verity’s 27-yard field goal before the Bearcats drove 50 yards in seven plays.
Unlike ECU in its previous week’s uninspired 45-20 loss to unranked South Florida, the Pirates responded to Cincinnati’s three first-half scores with four touchdowns and a field goal to take the halftime lead 31-21.
The Pirates kept up their upset bid in the in the second half when they expanded their lead to 40-28. Verity hit a 20-yard field goal and Tyler Snead’s 9-yard TD catch on third-and-goal.
But Cincinnati drove 75 yards in 13 plays for a touchdown and then took the lead on backup cornerback Ahmad Gardner’s 62-yard interception return and two-point conversion for a 43-40 lead with 4:38 left in the game.
Ahlers had completed several similar passes in the flat before Gardner jumped the route.
“He just made a mistake,” Houston said. “He’ll learn from it. Great play by their kid.”
The close game was a reminder that Houston can turn the program around. Just two years ago ECU, despite a 3-9 season record, embarrassed Cincinnati and its first-year coach, Luke Fickell, in Greenville, 48-20.
Fickell is now guiding a ranked Bearcats program that has won 18 of its last 21 games.
“I don’t know if there is any one thing you can pinpoint,” Fickell said. “It wasn’t like all sudden we got this win and the momentum and energy changed. It comes down to a process. It’s a tough process. It first comes down to knowing and believing in the kids around you and the people around you, whether they’re the coaches or whoever it is.”
Johnson added to his previous three games of 80 (USF), 106 (UCF) and 100 (Temple) yards. On the 6-2, 229-pound Johnson’s 75-yard touchdown catch, he grabbed the ball 30 yards down field over cornerback Cam Jefferies and outran safety Ja’von Hicks the final 40 yards. The Bearcats later switched Coby Bryant on to Johnson, but he couldn’t contain Johnson, either.
In the season’s first five games, ECU’s only 100-yard game was from Blake Proehl (2-100) in the win at Old Dominion.
Ahlers answered speculation he was playing banged up and/or having trouble adjusting to a new offense that asked him to run the ball less. He topped his career highs of 475 total yards and 406 yards passing last year in a loss to UCF.
ECU, ranked No. 88 in the nation allowing 417.2 yards per game, gave up 487 to Cincinnati. The Bearcats were averaging 383.9.
ECU inside linebacker Aaron Ramseur missed the game after undergoing surgery for an ACL injury suffered last week. The 6-1, 213-pound junior from Shelby was ninth on the team in tackles (32) in eight games with one start against UCF, when he recorded seven tackles.
1: Games true freshman quarterback Bryan Gagg has played. Houston wants to redshirt him, which means four games is his limit. The Pirates have three games remaining at SMU, at Connecticut and home against Tulsa.
2: Seasons it took Mike Houston to turn The Citadel’s record from 5-7 into a 9-4 finish in 2015, which included the school’s first postseason appearance in 24 years. At both Lenoir-Rhyne and James Madison, Houston inherited a winning programs. Under Houston, Lenoir-Rhyne was the 2013 NCAA Division II runner-up in his third year. He led James Madison to the Football Championship Subdivision title his first season (2016).
8: True freshman cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian’s team-leading number of pass breakups. He broke up a deep pass on Cincinnati’s first play that was tipped to Daniel Charles for an interception.
2: Charles’ interception total for the night, which were the first two of the sophomore strong safety’s career.
24: The most points Cincinnati had yielded this year, other than the 42-0 loss to then No. 5-ranked Ohio State in the Bearcats’ second game.
105: Number of receiving yards on eight catches for Proehl.
143: Johnson’s halftime receiving yardage, topping his previous career high (106) for a game.
316: Ahler’s halftime passing total (18-31-0) with three touchdowns.
9-20-14: The last time ECU upset a ranked opponent, defeating No. 25 North Carolina, 70-41.