Saturday night presented a déjà vu moment for both Memphis and East Carolina fans alike. The venue changed from Memphis to Greenville, the side of the field changed, but the ending brought back instant flashbacks of the 2021 game. One year after East Carolina broke up Memphis’ overtime 2-point try upend the Tigers at the Liberty Bowl, the moment repeated itself at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. This time, Seth Henigan’s lob to Caden Prieskorn landed out of bounds, as the quarterback overshot his tight end on a climactic tying 2-point attempt in fourth overtime.
East Carolina escaped with a 47-45 victory in a game which tied the record for most overtime periods between FBS opponents this year. The Pirates improved to 4-3 after the much-needed victory while the Tigers fell to 4-3 after dropping their second consecutive AAC contest in heartbreaking fashion.
In a loaded week which featured Tennessee’s iconic 52-49 victory over Alabama, TCU’s overtime comeback win over Oklahoma State, and Cameron Rising’s gutsy fourth quarter heroics to lead Utah past undefeated USC, this 4-overtime thriller flew under the radar. But given the fact East Carolina stormed back down 17, the trading of touchdowns in the final two minutes, and the exhilarating finish in four overtimes, this AAC matchup belongs on the list of college football games of the year.
Here are several thoughts stemming from the thrilling battle in Greenville:
Memphis squandered another lead, and here’s why
Memphis entered Week 4 of the 2021 season sporting an unblemished record — which included a victory over Mississippi State in the prior week. That momentum carried into the Tigers’ ensuing contest against UTSA — at least for the beginning. Memphis jumped to a 21-0 advantage but watched that lead quickly evaporate as the Roadrunners scored 17 fourth quarter points to win 31-28 at the Liberty Bowl. The following week, the Tigers seemed to let that one loss beat them twice. Against Temple in Week 5, Memphis opened the gap to 17-0 in the second quarter, but the Owls erased that progress and wound up stunning the Tigers 34-31. Memphis blew 17+ point leads in back-to-back weeks, which changed the course of an entire season — as its 3-0 start turned into a 6-6 finish.
What’s the point of this history lesson? Well, history can repeat itself, and I wrote extensively about this in my takeaways from the Memphis’ Week 6 loss to Houston. The Tigers squandered a 26-7 fourth quarter lead at home that night, remaining one play away from victory on numerous occasions. For a team that still had reasonable hopes of crashing the championship in a wide-open AAC, Memphis could not afford this loss to produce a ripple effect again.
But that’s what happened. Memphis was in full control until the latter portion of the second quarter by garnering a 17-0 lead over East Carolina. Things changed quickly though as a pair of interceptions — including a pick-six — turned the tide in favor of the Pirates for the remainder of the contest, and Memphis was forced to play catch-up. Now, the Tigers are 4-3 instead of 6-1 after dropping consecutive games in which it held 17+ point leads.
Losing the Houston game in heartbreaking fashion seemed to be a pivotal point in a promising season, so now Memphis must apply the lessons from two weeks as it looks for a turnaround. What do the Tigers need to fix? Preserving leads becomes easier when establishing a run game, but Memphis is still working to jump start that facet of its offense. No Tiger rusher has exceeded 84 yards this year, and the team was limited to 2.4 yards per carry at East Carolina. Turnovers were certainly a glaring issue in both blown leads, but controlling clock via a reliable run game could go a long way in the future.
Keaton Mitchell is ECU’s engine
East Carolina’s offense had been in a bit of a funk during AAC play, South Florida game aside. Against Navy, star running back Keaton Mitchell left the game early with an injury and the Pirates certainly felt the effects in a shocking 23-20 home overtime loss to the Midshipmen. Mitchell returned last week against a relentless Tulane run defense, which prefers to bottle up ball carriers and force teams to beat them through the air. He posted 49 rushing yards on 10 attempts against the Green Wave, but the Pirates couldn’t generate the efficiency in the passing game needed to win in New Orleans, falling in 24-9 fashion.
What we learned earlier in the season, especially in the win over Old Dominion, is this offense takes on a different form when Mitchell is the focal point. And that’s exactly what contributed to East Carolina’s win Saturday night, as the running back produced 149 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries. Mitchell, possibly the fastest player in college football, utilized his dangerous degree of speed along with an impressive stiff arm to continually blow by Memphis defenders. He played a role in the receiving game with 28 yards, and in third overtime, he caught a do-or-die 2-point attempt short of the goal line but made a sensational fake to lose the defender and wind up in the end zone.
Mitchell is an incredible talent and watching him perform in that manner should give plenty of confidence to East Carolina’s offense going forward. When Mitchell gets 13+ carries, East Carolina is 3-0 and averaging 45 points per game. In games he received 10 or fewer handoffs, the Pirates are 0-3 with a scoring allotment of 16.3 points per game. Feeding Mitchell makes a difference.
Memphis had a perfectly executed strategy in the fourth quarter
Let’s talk Memphis’ strategy. In the fourth overtime, the Tigers’ 2-point attempt was an effective play call. There were several options available, and Seth Henigan mailed it to his trusty red zone target Caden Prieskorn, but the throw sailed a bit high. The ideal target would have been a different tight end in Anthony Landphere, who was posted up in the front of the end zone, but the play was likely designed for Prieskorn in the back corner.
However, Memphis stood a 2-point attempt away from victory in the second overtime after intercepting East Carolina in the end zone on the Pirates’ try. This call was a bit more surprising as the Tigers elected to run it out of the shotgun with Asa Martin. While Martin had been the team’s most productive back all contest, Memphis didn’t provide the most stellar run blocking — allowing 10 tackles for loss throughout the contest. This play was immediately blown up by East Carolina defensive end Chad Stephens, thus prolonging the game into the 2-point exchange that is the modern version of college football overtime.
But to even get to that point in overtime, Memphis was forced to strategize at the end of the fourth quarter — and an unconventional move paid off. With under two minutes remaining, the Tigers had one timeout at their disposal. So when East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers converted a 3rd and 8 and was stopped at the 1-yard line, the Pirates could conceivably run the clock out and kick an extra point for an easy win. Instead, they handed the ball to Keaton Mitchell on the 1, and the running back was met by without a hint of resistance. Memphis’ linebackers backed off and let Mitchell score, understanding that the Tigers’ win probability would skyrocket if they simply allowed the touchdown to transpire.
Then, Ryan Silverfield’s team delivered. Henigan scaled the length of the field in eight plays and 1:26 of clock, connecting on 5-of-6 passes for 73 yards in the series. With 19 seconds left, Henigan found Joseph Scates in the back of the end zone for the tying score, effectively capitalizing on the seemingly counteractive, yet effective strategy of purposely yielding a touchdown in the final minutes of the contest.
Holton Ahlers and C.J. Johnson have mastered the fade route
It’s a very controversial discussion in football. There are many football fans who despise the fade route, as the play often results in an uncatchable overthrow. But one fanbase which can certainly appreciate the fade route is that of East Carolina, because quarterback Holton Ahlers delivers a good one.
Mike Houston and his staff relied on Ahlers’ fade route to the point they called it to win the game — and it worked. Ahlers fired the ball to his 6’2”, 222 pound receiver C.J. Johnson in the end zone to a location where only Johnson could snag it, and that play is why East Carolina is 4-3.
Holy C.J. Johnson! pic.twitter.com/YfuNOMqJ8E— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) October 16, 2022
Ahlers similarly sent a jump ball to Johnson a fade route in the 4th quarter. On a 3rd and 2 on East Carolina’s final scoring drive in regulation, Ahlers extended the possession by perfectly placing the pigskin into Johnson’s hands on a fade route to the opposite side of the field. After four long years together, the chemistry between Ahlers and Johnson is undoubtedly noticeable, and their shared brilliance on fade routes is a key component of the Pirates’ arsenal to watch going forward, as they execute this play far better than most teams.