The entire city of Provo, UT stood still for a moment Friday night. East Carolina lined up for a game-winning 33-yard field goal in hopes of upending BYU on the road, but a series of BYU timeouts to ice the kicker created a waiting game and prolonged the nerves of Cougar and Pirate fans alike in the tense environment.
For BYU, a made kick would signify its fourth consecutive loss, straying the Cougars further and further away from the days of the No. 12 ranking they held in mid-September. For ECU, a made kick would signify not only the Pirates’ third consecutive win, but progress in an area where progress was needed. The Pirates’ kicking struggles were well-documented this year, and the failure to convert in crunch-time situations cost the team two notches in the win column.
BYU exhausted its final timeout, and then freshman kicker Andrew Conrad lined up for a down-the-middle attempt. Upon making contact with his toe, the ball didn’t acquire much height, but it didn’t need to. The line drive split the uprights, and Pirates players responded in celebration, making snow angels on the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium to celebrate a hard-fought 27-24 win at the buzzer.
For East Carolina, this game was all about the trust head coach Mike Houston placed in his team. Moments before Conrad emerged as the hero, he shanked a 42-yard field goal which would have handed the Pirates a 3-point advantage with 10 minutes to go. But Houston placed his trust in the kicking game, just like he trusted his offense several plays prior to the clock-expiring attempt.
On a 4th and 8 from the BYU 34-yard line with under a minute remaining, East Carolina aggressively sent the offense onto the field. While quarterback Holton Ahlers’ deep ball didn't sail into the arms of Isaiah Winstead on the crucial down, the Pirates benefited from a pass interference call which assisted in setting up Conrad’s game-winning shot.
The offense pushed East Carolina into field goal range for the win, but the defense was the true guiding force in a lockdown fourth quarter. On BYU’s three drives in the final stanza, East Carolina’s defense delivered with an impressive punch each time.
The Pirates registered back-to-back fourth downs stops by clobbering the Cougars at the line of scrimmage — one attempt was from the ECU 12-yard line in the early portion of the frame and another stemmed from the BYU 44-yard line in the middle of the period. Shortly after fourth down gambles plagued the Cougars, BYU exacted revenge when when the Pirates failed to convert a fourth down inside the 10. But even through this lost opportunity, East Carolina’s defense answered the call of duty by forcing a Cougar three-and-out.
Offensively, the hero of the game for East Carolina was speed back Keaton Mitchell. Prior to leaving the game with an injury on the Pirates’ penultimate possession, Mitchell spearheaded the offensive production with 176 yards on 21 carries — his fifth time crossing the century mark in 2022. Mitchell also opened ECU’s scoring effort for the night by breezing past the BYU defense on a 31-yard off-tackle run in the opening quarter.
Ahlers added two second half rushing touchdowns from the quarterback position, including a game-tying 4-yard scramble in the middle of the third quarter. While his tough running led to paydirt, Ahlers’ arm consistently maneuvered the Pirates into scoring position. The senior totaled 197 passing yards on a 15-of-22 showing, allowing his top two receivers — Winstead and C.J. Johnson — to combine for nine receptions and 108 yards.
BYU’s offense experienced a slew of explosive plays in the heartbreaking defeat. Lopini Katoa accumulated 116 rushing yards as the Cougars’ top back, accelerating out of a stumble on a 24-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. One drive later, BYU quarterback Jaren Hall sailed the ball to a wide-open Puka Nacua for a 31-yard score, providing the home team with a 17-10 lead. Although BYU was situated one step ahead the entire night until the fourth quarter, the Cougars never led by more than seven as East Carolina prevented BYU from recording consecutive scores in the contest.
East Carolina’s third consecutive win improves the Pirates to 6-3, clinching bowl eligibility for the second consecutive season. Due to a COVID-19 related cancelation affecting last December’s Military Bowl, ECU is now line to play its first postseason game since 2014. After flying past UCF in Week 8 and spoiling the Cougars’ Friday night, the Pirates defeated future Big 12 opponents in back-to-back contests. East Carolina’s next two opponents are also future Big 12 members, as the Pirates prepare to battle Cincinnati and Houston following their upcoming bye week.