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GREENVILLE — Although East Carolina University has yet to officially designate itself as “Wide Receiver U,” the Pirates have a rather strong argument for the title in the wake of its otherwise dubious 66-31 loss to Navy inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Senior wide receiver Zay Jones officially broke the NCAA FBS record for career receptions, snatching the record from former ECU wideout Justin Hardy with his eighth catch Saturday. He snagged a 19-yard pass from quarterback Gardner Minshew on a post corner route, allowing him to secure reception No. 388 for his career.
With one game to go on the road at Temple, Jones will have an opportunity to pad his record over the 400 mark. He’s now at 392 grabs after finishing with 12 receptions for 212 yards and two TDs Saturday. The 212 yards represents a career high for Jones.
His record-setting grab helped move along a drive that ended in a field goal to make it 17-7 ECU. During the next break in action, Jones was recognized at midfield as a huge banner — similar to Hardy’s — was unfurled from the top of the Murphy Center.
Now with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, Hardy was in town on the team’s bye week to witness his former teammate break the record. The two shared a private moment at midfield before play resumed, the contents of which Jones steadfastly declined to divulge to the media.
Incidentally, Hardy was not selected as a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award as a senior despite leading the nation in receptions and closing in on the all-time FBS record at that time. However, Jones was picked as a semifinalist for the award presented to the nation’s premier wide receiver. The three finalists will be announced Tuesday with the winner revealed on Dec 8.
“Just having him there, he told me some words of encouragement — some things that really meant a lot to me,” Jones said of Hardy, who finished his ECU career with 387 catches. “He just told me to keep playing hard, that he’s proud of me. There are some other things that I’d rather not share publicly, but it was touching because I see Justin as a brother.”
At first, Jones didn’t know if the game would be halted to immediately acknowledge the record-breaking catch. Instead, ECU (3-8, 1-6 American Athletic Conference) continued with the up-tempo approach and settled for a 43-yard field goal from placekicker Davis Plowman.
“I didn’t know if they were going to stop the game so I was hesitant to give the ball back because I wanted to hold it,” Jones reviewed. “Then the (official) asked for the ball and I was kind of like ‘No!’ He was like, ‘Give me the ball,’ so I gave it to him.
On a day where the ECU defense once again struggled to do anything with the speed and precision of Navy’s triple-option offense, Jones knew the career reception record was a possibility as soon as Hardy passed Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles for his record. Navy (8-2, 6-1 American) clinched the American’s West Division championship with the win, rushing for 480 yards. The Midshipmen scored on 10 of 12 possessions and kneeled out the clock on its final touch.
“I had no question that I could do it,” Jones said. “I believed it before anyone thought it was even possible.”
The rescheduling of the ECU-Navy game to Nov. 19 — formerly the common bye week for both teams — due to Hurricane Matthew allowed AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco to attend. Aresco touched on a number of topics in a pregame media session, including the league’s push to be included among the FBS’s current “power conferences” and the upcoming television contract negotiations for the league.
When the Big 12 Conference announced in mid-October it would not be expanding from its present 10 teams, the American moved ahead with a campaign to insert itself into the same conversation piece with the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12. The American’s teams have been wearing “P6” stickers on the back of their helmets.
During the active Big 12 expansion phase, nearly every American school inquired and made pitches to the Texas-based conference. East Carolina was among them and did not make the cut of finalists.
Now with his league seemingly intact, Aresco, who oversaw the old Big East’s transition into the American, has resumed pounding the pavement. The highest-rated conference champion among the American and the Mountain West, MAC, Sun Belt and Conference USA in the final College Football Playoff rankings gets a guaranteed berth to a big-money bowl game.
Already, the American’s teams have performed on the big stage. UCF beat Baylor to win the 2014 Fiesta Bowl in the final year of the Bowl Championship Series system, while Houston took down Florida State in the 2015 Peach Bowl. There was more pep in Aresco’s step Saturday thanks to Houston’s 36-10 blitzing of then-No. 3 Louisville. Already, the Cougars have defeated Oklahoma, which is closing in on the Big 12 regular-season title. Despite that, Houston cannot win its own division of the American.
“I won’t say it if it wasn’t true,” Aresco maintained. “If we weren’t doing this, then I wouldn’t say it because you have to have credibility. The truth is, look at what we’ve done.”
Soon, the topic of television renegotiations will resume for Aresco and the American. It will be a critical step for the league, which is dwarfed in revenue by the Power 5 conferences. That likely won’t change with a new deal, but it does represent an opportunity to have more money infused into the league’s coffers. The current deal with primary partner ESPN runs through 2019-20.
ESPN reported Friday that the streaming audience for Houston-Louisville was the highest ever for a Thursday night broadcast.
“It’s important to identify competitors, but also to have a close relationship with our TV partner, ESPN,” Aresco said. “They’re good guys. I keep telling our schools, it’s more important, I think, to build value. Keep building the value. We had 19 games last year with a million or more viewers. By the way, that Thursday game (Houston-Louisville) was the highest-rated Thursday of the year. If you keep doing things like that, others will notice. You’ll be viewed as a P6, TV value will go higher and then it’s a question of seeing what the competition (does). Then, ESPN will react if they don’t want to lose us. So, that’s the dynamic that’s going to have to be in play.”
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