As one of the country's most prolific offenses sputtered and the penalties mounted and the deficit grew, East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden stayed calm. He knew things were going to get better.
"We just had to keep doing what we do, and believe in it,'' he said.
In the second half, the Pirates did what they do, and did it well.
After a penalty- and error-filled first half put East Carolina's national ranking in jeopardy, the Pirates played a near-flawless second half to rally and knock off South Florida 28-17 Saturday night in Tampa.
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In front of a homecoming crowd of 31,567 at Raymond James Stadium, the No. 19-ranked Pirates climbed out of a 17-7 halftime hole and wore down the Bulls defense with a balanced attack USF had no answer for.
ECU scored on its first three second-half possessions to improve to 5-1 overall and 2-0 in the American Athletic Conference. USF dropped to 2-4, 1-1.
With USF playing eight men in coverage for much of the night, the Pirates were able to adapt after halftime. In the final two quarters, they rushed the ball 18 times for 154 yards and threw 22 times for another 147 to beat the Bulls for the first time after four losses.
While Carden's string of 400-yard passing games ended at three (he finished with 250, his lowest total since 2013), he was able to steer the Pirates on long drives and set up rushing touchdowns by Breon Allen, Marquez Grayson and Anthony Scott.
"We take alot of pride in our rushing game,'' said head coach Ruffin McNeill. "This is not like the Texas Tech offense, which I have alot of respect for. Lincoln (Riley, offensive coordinator) has put his own little flavor in it. We are balanced. We can do both."
After one of ECU’s worst quarters on the season in the second, Carden was 6-for-6 on the opening drive of the second half, and Grayson capped the series with a 24-yard touchdown run, the first of his career.
The Pirates, who had six penalties for 81 yards in the first half, including five personal fouls, overcame three more penalties on the opening drive. But despite three holding calls, the Pirates accumulated 114 yards of offense on the drive to pull within 17-14.
Josh Hawkins’ fourth interception of the season on USF’s ensuing drive gave the ball back to ECU. Behind four straight completions by Carden and some big runs by Chris Hairston, the Pirates drove 86 yards and Allen crashed in from 4 yards out to give ECU its first lead of the night at 21-17.
"The first half was the worst we've played, we were down by 10, we had a fumble on the first drive and a bunch of penalties'' said Carden, who completed 15 of 18 passes after intermission. "We just had to be patient."
After holding USF to a 3-and-out early in the fourth quarter, Anthony Scott dashed around end for a 20-yard touchdown with 6:28 remaining to make it 28-17.
East Carolina strung together scoring drives of 15, 11 and nine plays, totaling 279 yards, to start the second half.
For the game, Carden was 24-for-33, including 10 completions to top target Justin Hardy for 114 yards.
The Pirates ran for 232 yards, led by Allen’s 124. Allen also caught a 35-yard touchdown pass, the first scoring reception of his career, from Carden in the first half, tying the game at 7-7 near the end of the first quarter.
In the second, Carden was sacked twice, threw an interception and the Pirates gained just 25 yards of offense.
On defense, the Pirates were penalized four times in the quarter for 51 yards, aiding two USF scoring drives that helped give the Bulls a 10-point lead.
But the Pirates kept doing what they do, and stopped doing what they shouldn't, and things got better.