Defense vanishes again for Pirates

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GREENVILLE — Like a fish swimming upstream, the offense of the ECU football team finally ran out of answers Saturday afternoon against No. 18 South Florida inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. After falling behind 14-3 to the Bulls’ dominant rushing attack, the Pirates pulled within one score on three different occasions at 24-17, 31-24 and 38-31.

But each time, the ECU defense could not generate a needed stop to get the ball back to an eager offense. Despite four total TDs (two rushing, two passing) from Duke graduate transfer quarterback Thomas Sirk, USF ended the day scoring 23 unanswered points to pull away for a 61-31 win.

In a battle for sole possession of first place in the American Athletic Conference’s East Division, USF moved to 5-0 and 2-0 within the American, while ECU fell to 1-4 in all games and 1-1 within the league.

“What we have to realize is this is the standard that we have to catch,” second-year ECU head coach Scottie Montgomery said. “We’ve got to catch South Florida and their talent. Looking at their team of seniors and a lot of juniors on this team, I’m happy that a lot of them will be graduating, especially the quarterback (Quinton Flowers). “I thought he was as good as we thought he was last year, if not better. He picked his spots on the field and threw the ball effectively. They dropped some balls that should have been catches.”

Through five games, the ECU defense has been next to nonexistent. The Pirates entered Saturday’s game ranked 129th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total defense, giving up an average of 624.8 yards per game against a murderer’s row of a schedule including West Virginia, Virginia Tech, USF and reigning Football Championship Subdivision national champion James Madison. A leaky defense has allowed 48 points per game, which is 128th in the country.

“We knew they were a run-heavy team,” graduate safety Korrin Wiggins said. “They wanted to run the ball and they have great athletes. We knew that Quinton Flowers was a good athlete and he can make plays with his feet. So we just wanted to try to contain him as much as we could.”

It didn’t work well at all. USF produced 390 yards on the ground and cracked the 30-point barrier for the 22nd straight game — a national best. The No. 9-ranked rushing offense in FBS produced 101 yards more than its average, with Flowers rushing 10 times for 103 yards and a touchdown. D’Ernest Johnson had 111 yards on 16 carries and a pair of scores. Flowers staked USF to a 14-3 first-quarter lead where he kept the ball up the middle and leisurely jogged into the end zone from 16 yards out.

Wiggins assured the Bulls did nothing ECU was not prepared for.

“We gave up some plays and didn’t execute as well as we should have,” Wiggins said. “But we’ll bounce back. You just try to keep a windshield mentality — straight forward to what’s ahead. Leave the past in the past and just continue to get better.”

Sirk’s 13-yard TD run in the second quarter pulled the Pirates to within 24-17. But on USF’s next offensively play from scrimmage, the Bulls attacked the perimeter with N.C. State transfer Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Valdes-Scantling took the jet sweep running wide and ran down the sideline for a 75-yard TD, making it 31-17 USF.

ECU pulled within a touchdown at the half on a well-executed jump pass on the goal line from Sirk to senior tight end Stephen Baggett. However, USF marched right back down the field with the first possession of the second half, scoring on a Flowers TD pass.

In all, ECU permitted scores on 10 of 13 USF possessions, representing little progress in the third game under the defensive leadership of elevated coordinator Robert Prunty. Prunty, also ECU’s defensive line coach, was elevated to the position by Montgomery after the Pirates’ 56-20 loss to West Virginia in week two, replacing Kenwick Thompson.

Senior wide receiver Davon Grayson finished with five grabs for 101 yards for ECU, while Sirk connected on 20 of 43 passes for 302 yards. An attempted tunnel screen from Sirk in the first quarter deflected off the hands of wide receiver Quay Johnson, which bounced into the hands of USF linebacker Auggie Sanchez for a 43-yard interception return and a 21-10 Pirate deficit.