On a night when star senior receiver Justin Hardy snared a pair of touchdown passes and became East Carolina's all-time leader in receptions, it was a pass he threw that will be remembered as the highlight of the 2014 season-opener Saturday night at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Hardy's 41-yard pass on a double reverse, hitting a wide-open Isaiah Jones with 3:27 left in the first quarter vaulted the slow-starting Pirates ahead 10-7 and ignited what ended in a 52-7 rout of N.C. Central before a crowd of 42,758 and an ESPNews audience.
"I think everybody thought it was going to be a magical beginning," fifth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill said. "Everyone has to remember we want to play our best game in our last game, like last year. I thought our offense did a good job of staying in what (offensive coordinator) Lincoln (Riley) wanted. We made adjustments and stayed steady. What I'm really proud of is the commitment to the team concept."
Hardy finished with eight catches for 87 yards, giving him 274 receptions for his career. His leaping 17-yard grab of a Shane Carden pass in the second quarter gave him 269 and pushed him past Dwayne Harris.
Hardy had touchdown catches of 20 yards and 1 yard, both in the second quarter to help the Pirates to a commanding 31-7 halftime lead. He and Carden have now hooked up 20 times in their record-setting careers, the most among active tandems in college football.
Carden, pressured early by a blitzing Eagle defense, found his rhythm and completed 18 of 27 passes for 203 yards in the first half. He finished 26 of 37 before redshirt freshman Kurt Benkert stepped in at the start of the fourth quarter for his first action. Benkert, from Cape Coral, Fla., connected on six of eight passes for 50 yards and capped the scoring with a spinning nine-yard run with 1:22 to play.
The Pirates piled up 582 yards of total offense, the sixth-highest total at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and the second-most under McNeill.
ECU, limited to 22 rushing yards on 11 carries in the first half, plowed out 186 in the second half to finish with 208. The freshman duo of Marquez Grayson (seven carries, 78 yards) and Anthony Scott (seven carries, 61 yards) and junior Chris Hairston (three carries, 33 yards) carried the bulk of the load in the final two quarters.
Scott scored on a 38-yard sprint with 6:40 to go to put the Pirates up 45-7. Grayson had a 42-yard run to set up the final TD by Benkert.
The Pirate defense, led by Zeek Bigger's 11 tackles, did its part against the overmatched Eagles and held an opponent without an offensive touchdown for the first time since a 24-3 win over No. 8 West Virginia on Sept. 6, 2008.
The Pirates forced just one turnover, but it turned into quick points. With the Eagles pinned deep, junior defensive end Johnathan White disrupted an attempted pitch by quarterback Quinn Billerman, and redshirt freshman Joe Allely recovered at the 2-yard line. On second down, after a pass interference penalty and rush attempt, Carden found Hardy in the front of the end zone.
Carden distributed the ball to six different receivers. He moved up to third on the school's all-time completion list with 686, just one behind James Pinkney. His 59 career touchdown passes trails only David Garrard (60) and Dominique Davis (62).
Jones, a sophomore building on a stellar freshman season, had six catches for 108 yards by halftime and finished with career highs of 10 receptions and 150 yards receiving.
The Pirates were unable to match the energy of a festive pregame in the opening minutes and found themselves in a 7-0 hole after C.J. Moore scooped up a Breon Allen fumble on ECU's first rushing attempt and ran 31 yards. The Eagles would not come close to generating any more points as ECU's defense got physical and clamped down.
Warren Harvey's 34-yard field goal got the Pirates within 7-3. A crushing hit by sophomore cornerback DaShaun Amos on a swing pass stymied the Eagles' next drive and energized the purple-and-gold clad fans. A 15-yard penalty only briefly stalled the Pirates before Hardy's momentum-swinging touchdown pass.
Allen's 5-yard touchdown run and Hardy's two scoring catches in the second quarter put the opener well in hand.
Now it's on to a three-game challenge of South Carolina, Virginia Tech and North Carolina in successive weeks.
"I'm very proud of our team and how we played together," McNeill added. "The only expectations our team is worried about are the ones we have. My expectations were met tonight. By our kids because I know how hard first games are. I was very proud of how they handled it."