An impressive offensive outburst in the first half equaled a big win for East Carolina in its 2020 season finale as the Pirates posted a 52-38 American Athletic Conference victory over SMU Saturday afternoon at a sun-splashed Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The offensive output marked the highest of the Mike Houston era and the most for ECU against an AAC opponent since a 55-point effort against Connecticut in 2018. The Pirates (3-6, 3-5 AAC) picked up their first victory over the Mustangs (7-3, 4-3 AAC) since 2015 and notched consecutive wins over league opponents for the first time since beating Tulane and Tulsa back in 2014. Additionally, the Pirates had not beaten an AAC team that finished with a winning record since entering the league, until Saturday.
The offense, defense and special teams were all clicking and playing complementary football in the opening 30 minutes. The two-touchdown victory over an SMU team that was nearly a two-touchdown favorite over the Pirates represented the first true signature win for Houston since taking over the program in December of 2018.
Junior quarterback Holton Ahlers put together an efficient performance, completing 20-of-29 pass attempts for 298 yards and four touchdowns against no interceptions. Sophomore receiver Blake Proehl was on the end of six of those completions, resulting in 152 yards and two scores. True freshman running back Keaton Mitchell closed the book on an impressive rookie season with 68 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown.
The 3-5 record to close the season in American Athletic Conference play represents ECU’s best finish since 2015, in the last year of Ruffin McNeill’s time in Greenville. And the Pirates probably should have had a fourth conference win if not for a blown call at Tulsa, and maybe even a fifth if Ahlers would have been available for Navy if not for a false positive COVID-19 test.
SMU quarterback Shane Buechele connected on 35-of-50 pass attempts for 314 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Austin Upshaw recorded eight catches for a team-best 78 yards, while Tyler Lavine rushed the ball six times for 34 yards and two touchdowns.
The Mustangs came out lethargic and thought this game would be a cake-walk. SMU never looked like a team that had significant aspirations to play in the AAC title game. Once, the team woke up, it was too little too late.
Turnovers played a crucial component by giving the Pirates short fields as well as ECU throwing the kitchen sink of trick plays at SMU with a fake punt, reverse passes, etc. Great win for the Pirates and a gut wrenching loss for the Mustangs.
SMU will now finish off their regular season next Saturday, Dec. 5th when the Houston Cougars come to town.