The Pirates left Tulsa, Oklahoma on Friday night feeling like they should have won. Without the Golden Hurricane being helped by a call the American Athletic Conference later admitted was wrong, ECU very well could have retained its four-point lead throughout the end of the contest.
A reversal on a fumble call and a confirmation on a fourth down pass completion that clearly skimmed the ground, however, spelled doom for ECU and sent Pirate Nation into a frenzy.
ECU Athletic Director Jon Gilbert and head football coach Mike Houston have been in contact with the league office since Friday for further clarification on those two calls. Houston would not say on Tuesday whether he was provided with a satisfactory answer to his questions, but did share some of what he told his players over the weekend.
“We got screwed,” Houston said. “That’s what I told them (the players) and that I wish I could change it, but you can’t change it. You can’t go back. Everybody wishes they could go back, I’m sure the officials wish they could go back, but you can’t. Life is not fair, that’s it. It’s how you respond to adversity. I talked to them Saturday just briefly on a Zoom chat just because I wanted to connect with them. I was hurting for them because I see how much they’re putting into this every single day. Then we talked on Sunday just that you can’t let one loss beat you twice, and so you got to move on from it and get ready for Tulane because Tulane is a very, very good football team.”
For nearly the entirety of four quarters, ECU out-played Tulsa on Friday night. The Pirates out-gained their opponent in total yards, forced three turnovers and dominated the time of possession. Not until the middle of the fourth quarter did Tulsa grab its first lead of the contest, only to see ECU traverse the field and jump back ahead 30-27 with 4:24 left in the fourth quarter.
While it was not ECU’s cleanest game — the Pirates were flagged 13 times for 105 yards — the defense limited the Golden Hurricane to just over 100 yards of offense in the first half. Quarterback Holton Ahlers passed for a season-high 330 yards and helped maneuver his team into a position to win the ball game, only to have it ripped away in the waning moments.
All things considered, Houston is happy with the way his team responded to adversity following Friday’s events. In the moment, his team moved the ball down the field with less than 30 seconds left in the game and took a shot toward the end zone as time expired. Ultimately coming up short, the Pirates have continued putting the work in at practice that put them in the position to win on Friday in the first place.
“I think they’ve responded as good as I could ask them to,” Houston said. “Are they pissed off about Friday night? Yes. We all are. It is what it is, there’s nothing we can do about it. You’re mad about it, it’s not right, it should have been a different turnout. They earned the right to win Friday night. It’s what I preach is you earn the right to win, you finish the game. They did that, and even in spite of the circumstances, they continued to battle and respond. They never hung their head, they gave us a shot on the last play of the game. They have continued on, just like that. I continue to be impressed with the guys we have on the field and continue to be so encouraged with the way they respond.”
So much of the culture Houston is building and has already built at ECU revolves around working hard in practice and earning everything you get. While it would have been easy for the Pirates to carry Friday night’s loss into this week, Houston said his team practiced well on Sunday and Monday before taking Tuesday off to vote in the general election.
Wednesday will mark continued preparations for a solid Tulane team that ECU will be playing for the first time since 2018. The Pirates get the Green Wave at home and will be facing a very stout and experienced defensive front.
Since Friday night, the AAC issued a statement on the blown fumble call and Houston has spoken his peace with the league office. All that is left now is to move on, finish a solid week of practice and work on getting back into the win column against Tulane on Saturday.
“We’ve got to play our best this Saturday to have a shot,” Houston said. “You acknowledge it because you can’t ignore it. The American Conference, they made their statement acknowledging what happened. Now we’ve got to put that behind us and move on to Tulane as a group.”
ECU and Tulane are scheduled to kick-off at noon on Saturday from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The game can be streamed on ESPN+.