“The kids played their butts off,” ECU head football coach Mike Houston said postgame. “We should be sitting here singing the fight song right now.”
It is never a good practice to hang the outcome of a football game on one play, or a handful of plays. Despite that, ECU’s 34-30 loss to Tulsa on Friday night could have looked a lot different if some calls had broken an alternative way.
Up three points following a go-ahead four-yard touchdown pass from the left arm of Holton Ahlers to Rahjai Harris, the Pirates were 4:38 away from knocking off a tough Tulsa team on the road. For the second straight contest ECU was in a position to win the game, that is until a string of questionable calls all but handed Tulsa the victory on Friday.
With the Golden Hurricane approaching mid-field, the Pirates were one play away from stopping Tulsa dead in its tracks and hopping back on the plane with a win. A very late pass interference call on Warren Saba later, however, and the drive was allowed to continue.
“The pass interference call is a judgement call on fourth down,” Houston said. “Obviously there must have been something there for them to call it. You usually don’t see that call on a fourth down, so it must have been pretty blatant for them to throw a flag right there.”
By now, replays of T.K. Wilkerson’s rush and Josh Johnson’s catch have thoroughly made their way around social media. Ruled a fumble on the field, which would have been Jireh Wilson’s second forced fumble of the game, it was instead ruled that Wilkerson regained possession of the football and got down before the ball was completely jarred loose.
“The fumble that was ruled a fumble on the field, it must have been very obvious because usually you would not overturn that late in a ball game like that,” Houston said. “You would not overturn it unless it was just obvious that the arm was down before it came out.”
Even with the adversity against them and all the momentum seemingly swinging back in Tulsa’s favor, ECU’s defense stood up the next three plays and forced a do-or-die fourth and five situation for the Golden Hurricane.
Electing to go for it instead of kicking a potentially game-tying field goal, Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith uncorked a ball low and a little behind Johnson that forced the receiver to slide to make the catch. On the field, it was ruled a completed pass, but upon further inspection of the play, TV replay seemed to clearly show the football hitting the ground before the receiver gained full control.
“The last pass, the video they showed on the jumbotron shows the ball bouncing,” Houston said. “You could clearly see it hit the ground before, or even as he was making the catch. The ball is on the ground, so I don’t understand how it got ruled a catch. I’m not the replay official. I just know what I saw on the jumbotron. On the video we all saw it because as coaches we were talking about how much time we had left and how we were going to kill the clock. Our kids are absolutely devastated.”
Two plays later Tulsa was dancing in the end zone having just scored the go-ahead touchdown and leaving just 29 seconds on the clock. ECU final attempts at a comeback were dashed after the Pirates were placed in a difficult situation following highly questionable calls by American Athletic Conference officials.
Perhaps the pill of defeat would have been easier to swallow had the Pirates not out-played Tulsa for the majority of the ball game. Up 17-3 at the half, ECU had held the Golden Hurricane to just 109 yards of first-half offense with a defensive effort that came up with three sacks and four tackles for loss in the first 30 minutes.
That stellar defensive performance, as well as an offensive showcase that saw the Pirates rack up 456 yards, ended up in a losing effort and left Houston without much of a postgame message.
“How do you talk to them after that? I’ve coached almost 200 ball games as a head coach in my life and 100-plus at the college level,” Houston said. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my entire life. We dominated the time of possession, they were 3-of-14 on third down. Two turnovers there in the first half hurt us, but we were able to overcome those. Our kids just kept on playing, they kept on coming back, they kept believing, they kept fighting.”
Not until mid-way through the fourth quarter did ECU trail for the first time as Tulsa scored on four of its first five second half possessions. Still, the Pirates found a way to overcome 13 penalties on the afternoon and engineer an 11-play, 85-yard drive to go up 30-27 late.
“Obviously playing on the road against a quality defense,” Houson said. “We had some struggles there early, but still was playing well. We were able to get the lead there out of the gate and were playing well enough defensively to overcome some of the early struggles. Our offense did a great job there in the second quarter of getting us a good solid lead there at the half. In the second half, I thought we played very, very well.”
Against a team that came into the contest ranked inside the top-30 in total defense and scoring defense, the Pirates rushed for 126 yards and passed for another 330 and three touchdowns. Harris became the first ECU running back since 2012 to post three straight 100-yard performances with his 118-yard game, while Tyler Snead caught 16 balls for 108 yards and a touchdown.
Ahlers backed up a solid week of practice with a very sharp 38-for-50 effort and his first 300-yard passing game since ECU lost to Tulsa in 2019.
“I thought Holton was very sharp all week and I think he’s a good player,” Houston said. “It doesn’t surprise me that he had that kind of first half and it doesn’t surprise me he had the kind of game he had.”
Without a couple murky calls late in the ball game, it is possible ECU would have finally gotten over the hump Houston has been talking about for the last handful of weeks. Those calls, however, did happen, and ECU Athletic Director Jon Gilbert has already reached out to the AAC on behalf of his football team.
“We can send any calls we want them to take a look at, we can send it in,” Houston said. “It doesn’t get you the win back. That’s the tough thing, it does not get you the win back. We’ll obviously send in the calls we think need to be looked at.”