Just when East Carolina thought it had seized the momentum and positioned itself for an upset of SEC foe and nationally-ranked South Carolina, the Gamecocks muscled up and quashed those hopes.
ECU quarterback Shane Carden and his offensive mates could only watch from the sidelines as South Carolina went on a clock-draining, game-clinching drive in a 33-23 victory Saturday night at noisy Williams-Brice Stadium.
The Gamecocks (1-1), blitzed 52-28 at home by Texas A&M in their opener, chewed up 10:28 of the fourth quarter with a 18-play, 81-yard drive that ended with Elliott Fry's 20-yard field goal, his fourth field goal of the night. The grinding drive began with 11:57 to play after ECU (1-1) closed to within 30-23 on Carden's 17-yard touchdown toss to Cam Worthy, and featured two third-down conversions and nine consecutive running plays during one stretch.
The Pirates, with just 1:30 left and one timeout, had too big of a hill left to climb.
"We came out ready to go," said ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill, obviously disturbed by a couple of bizarre calls by the officiating crew - an unsportsmanlike penalty after an apparent fumble and a penalty for snapping the ball before it was signaled for play.
The Pirates put up impressive offensive numbers but ultimately were doomed by settling for early field goals and two second-half interceptions. ECU amassed 453 total yards to 441 for the Gamecocks. Carden, spreading the ball to eight different receivers, completed 32 of 46 passes for 321 yards with one TD and the two picks.
Senior receiver Justin Hardy, overcoming early leg cramps, was sensational with 11 catches for 133 yards. The former walk-on now has 10 career games with at least 10 catches and at least 100 yards receiving. Sophomore Isaiah Jones, shut down for the first half, finished with eight receptions for 46 yards.
Breon Allen and Chris Hairston were effective in the running game with limited carries. Allen had 58 yards on four carries, including a 44-yard dash, and added five catches for 38 yards. Hairston picked up 35 yards on six carries highlighted by a 14-yard touchdown run.
USC quarterback Dylan Thompson, after a shaky start, completed 25 of 38 passes for 266 yards with one TD and one interception.
The duo of Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds spearheaded a USC rushing attack that piled up 175 yards on 38 carries. The bruising 5-9, 223-pound Davis finished with 101 yards on 18 carries. Wilds had 49 yards on 14 carries.
"That's what they do," McNeill said. "They've got a stable of running backs and are big up front. Hats off to them and Coach (Steve) Spurrier."
The Pirates came out poised and confident, scoring on their first three possessions and four of six first-half possessions. But settling for three field goals and having one blocked resulted in a 20-16 halftime deficit.
Carden, connecting with Hardy three times and Cam Worthy and Trevon Brown once each, marched the Pirates from their 3-yard-line to the Gamecocks' 8 in 11 plays on the first possession before three straight incompletions. Warren Harvey then came on to kick the first of his three first-half field goals for a 3-0 lead.
Josh Hawkins' interception of a Thompson pass on the second play of the ensuing possession had ECU back in business, but again the drive stalled at the 17. Harvey knocked through a 35-yard field goal for a 6-0 lead.
At that point, the Pirates had run 18 plays for 114 yards to five plays for six yards for the Gamecocks.
"We had really good drives early," McNeill added. "We moved the ball well the majority of the night. I wish we had gotten sevens (touchdowns) in there early, those first two."
That's when the South Carolina offense began to get on track with Davis, Shaq Roland and Pharoh Cooper doing the bulk of the damage. Davis sprinted 36 yards to make it 7-6, slipping one tackled then racing untouched to the end zone.
The Pirates responded with an impressive nine-play, 81-yard drive to regain the lead at 13-7 with 13:37 left in the second quarter. A 23-yard pass to Allen and a 10-yard pass to Hardy to convert a big third down sparked the drive. Hairston's run accounted for the final 10 yards.
A questionable unsportsmanlike penalty on ECU kept the Gamecocks' next drive alive. Linebacker Maurice Falls came out of a pile with the ball, but officials called a penalty for delay.
"He said we didn't give the ball back fast enough," McNeill said. "Our kids don't disrespect anybody."
USC eventually got a 39-yard field goal to draw within 13-10.
The Pirates' only three-and-out series followed, and the Gamecocks took advantage by driving 76 yards in eight plays for a 17-13 lead. Davis barreled in from the three for the score.
The Pirates proceeded to march to the USC 24 on the next possession, but a low kick by Harvey was blocked by Gerald Dixon, Jr. The Gamecocks cashed that in for a 42-yard field goal by Fry for a 20-13 lead with 1:02 left in the half.
ECU was not content to go in down seven and, with the aid a of a roughing-the-passer penalty and a 20-yard pass to Worthy, the Pirates got in range for Harvey to boot a 40-yard field goal.
The Pirates' first two possessions of the second half essentially sealed their fate. On third down from USC's 37, Carden was hit as he scrambled and threw into the hands of Sherrod Golightly.
The Gamecocks then went 69 yards in nine plays with K.J. Brent running the final 16 yards for a 27-16 lead.
Carden was picked off again on the next series, this time by T.J. Gurley. The Gamecocks turned that into three points when Fry connected from 26 yards with 43 second left in the third quarter.
Carden regrouped nicely and led a 75-yard drive, twice converting on third-down keepers. His 17-yard pass to Worthy and Harvey's extra point made it 30-23.
Then the Gamecocks' played keep away for nearly the rest of the game.
"I'm proud of our kids," McNeill said. "We'll practice tomorrow and get ready for the next adventure."
That comes next week at Virginia Tech.