For the game’s first 30 games, ECU looked like a team ready to repeat as Conference USA champions after jumping out to a 27-7 halftime lead against Football Championship Subdivision-member Appalachian State.
The Pirates limited the Mountaineers to just 74 yards of offense in the first half, including holding Appalachian State to minus 11 yards in the first quarter.
Granted this was a Mountaineer team without its All-American quarterback, Armanti Edwards. On Saturday, it didn’t appear as if it mattered who was leading the Appalachian State attack because this day belonged to East Carolina.
The Pirates were dominating on both sides of the ball and on special teams. Things were going so bad for Appalachian State that the first time Brandon Jackson got the football, he went 39 yards for the game’s first touchdown with 13:19 left in the first quarter.
The team that went into Michigan’s “Big House” and walked out with one of the greatest upsets in college football history was not putting up a fight. The Mountaineer fans which were stuck in a small corner of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium were probably wishing they didn’t make the nearly 300-mile drive from Boone to Greenville.
The third quarter wasn’t going much better for Appalachian State when deep in their own territory and punter Sam Martin standing in his end zone to punt, he fumbled the snap and kicked the ball into the cheap seats for a safety, That gave the Pirates what seemed to be an insurmountable 29-7 lead.
The ECU student section was dancing to the music in between snaps, the cheerleaders were getting the fans to yell “Purple” and “Gold,” and Mountaineer faithful were starting to collect their belongings to head for the parking lot.
However, something happened on the way to an easy victory. Appalachian State coach Jerry Moore pulled the right strings and turned an ECU blowout into an edge-of-the-seat nailbiter. Moore hasn’t made very many mistakes in his long coaching career, but starting DeAndre Presley over Travis Cadet at quarterback may be one of them.
“You have to remember that Cadet has been here just three weeks,” Moore said. “We started Presley because he has playing experience for us and started some games for us last season. I waited to put him into the game because they had downed the ball at our 2-yard line and I did not want to have his first snap be so far back in our territory.”
Cadet began marching the Mountaineers up-and-down the field against the Pirates.
While at the time, Devon Moore’s 1-yard run in the opening moments of the fourth quarter didn’t seem like much as the ECU lead was trimmed to 29-14. The touchdown seemed to ignite the Mountaineers.
As well as the Pirates played in the first half, they played just as poorly in the final 30 minutes. While racking up it’s huge lead, East Carolina rolled to 267 yards of offense in the first half. In the second half, they had only 53 yards, including a meager 17 yards in the final quarter.
“I think we did some really good things in the first half, especially defensively, but we were still very sloppy,” Holtz said. “I think some of that can be attributed to the ‘first-game syndrome.’ Appalachian State got after us in the second half. Offensively, we did not make many first downs in the second half. We could not control the ball or get off of the field on defense.”
The Pirates couldn’t run, they couldn’t throw and they couldn’t tackle.
Cadet capped a seven-play 38-yard drive with a 1-yard rush to cut the Pirates’ lead to one possession at 29-21 with 8:41 left to play.
Suddenly, the Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium was quiet accept for the little patch of black and gold. The Mountaineer fans grew louder and louder as the momentum jumped from the home team to the visiting team.
The Pirates were able to avoid the upset, only because Appalachian State burned two timeouts early in the second half and were forced to spike the ball after a sack with under a minute left in the game. Cadet was unable to connect on his third and fourth-down passes giving the ball back to the Pirates to run out the clock.
“I just want to give Appalachian State a lot of credit in the second half,” Holtz said. “They played with a lot of heart and played really hard. They made it very difficult for us to get off the field. Appalachian is a good and competitive football team and they are used to winning over there.”
In their last two games, dating back to their Liberty Bowl appearance against Kentucky, the Pirates outscored their opponents 43-10 in the first half. However, in the second half they have been outscored 39-5.
Holtz and his coaching staff have been superb with their game-planning and getting the Pirates off to a great start in their games. After halftime, they haven’t been able to keep up with their opponents’ adjustments and it nearly cost them against Appalachian State as it did against Kentucky.
The Pirates will have to be better and put a full 60 minutes together if they want to win their next two games against West Virginia and North Carolina or repeat as conference championships.