On the back of four touchdown runs from senior running back Chris Hairston, the East Carolina Pirates got past opening night nerves with a 28-20 win over the Towson Tigers.
Both offenses were on top of their games in this opening night game, but East Carolina's defense made the key play in stopping Towson on a fourth down attempt at the ECU 16-yard-line with 2:01 left in the game to preserve the 28-20 win.
Blake Kemp, making his first start at quarterback for the Pirates, was 29-37 passing for 230 yards in the first game started by a quarterback named Shane Carden in over two years.
East Carolina started out quickly with a 9-play, 74-yard drive capped by Hairston's first touchdown of the day to jump ahead 7-0. Towson matched with a 30-yard touchdown strike minutes later and we were off to the races.
The Pirates led by as many as eight points but could not pull away from the Tigers or find any way to stop the balanced Towson offensive attack. The Tigers pulled within one point at 14-13 on a 32-yard field goal with 10:18 left in the third quarter. That was as close as Towson would get with Hairston finding the end zone two more times to pull the East Carolina lead to 28-13 early in the fourth quarter.
Towson struck back with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that cut the East Carolina lead to 28-20 with just over seven minutes left in the game. After a three-and-out by the East Carolina defense, Towson had one last chance to tie the game but came up short at the Pirates 16-yard-line to essentially end the game.
The Pirates have little time to enjoy this win as SEC power Florida, a rematch of the 2014 Birmingham Bowl, is next on the slate.
Let's look at some positives and negatives from the East Carolina performance versus Towson.
The running game: The Pirates coaching staff knew going into this game that a strong running game would help out Blake Kemp (29-37/230/0TD) in his first start on the FBS level. Led by Hairston's 154 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, the ECU offensive line was able to have their way in the trenches. Anthony Scott (12/60/0TD) added 60 yards on the ground as part of the Pirates' 210 total rushing yards.
No lost ball turnovers: The Pirates turned the ball over on downs once but did not lose any fumbles or throw any interceptions in the game. Kemp struggled a bit with interceptions in scrimmages so it is a big step forward to leave game one interception free.
Spreading the ball around: Isaiah Jones (6/77/0TD) led the team in catches but ECU had nine different players catch a pass in the win. The average yards per catch was lower than expected but getting nine different players involved in the passing game will come in handly down the line.
Special Teams Play: I know, I know. A field goal was missed. Despite that, the Pirates held the Tigers to no big returns with Towson starting seven of ten drives inside their own 25-yard-line. Forcing opponents to drive 70+ yards will come in handy once the defense gets their legs under them later this season. Punter Worth Gregory deserves a special mention for averaging 47.3 yards per punt on the night.
Not trusting the running game: The Pirates will always be an "Air Raid" offense under Ruffin McNeill but in the third quarter, ECU's defense produced a turnover in Towson territory. Facing a fourth-and-one, ECU went to the air and turned the ball over on downs. That play call did not hurt as they proceeded to hold Towson and get the ball back but you have to trust the line to get one yard on two tries.
Total Defense: Towson ended the night with 179 yards on 44 carries for a 4.1 yards per carry average. For an FCS rushing offense that is honestly not very good for find holes versus the Pirates defense is a bit of a worry. The pass defense for ECU gave up 237 yards in the air with Towson averaging 7.9 yards per pass attempt, 1.7 yards per catch higher than the Pirates total.
No Killer Instinct: The Pirates had opportunities in the second half to step on the throat but could not find that killer instinct with Towson hanging around until the final moments. East Carolina can get away with that versus Towson but when Florida and Navy are on the other sideline, that will not suffice.