The Eastern Carolina Pirates opened their NCAA college football season with a noontime matchup against ACC opponent NC State that aired on ESPN.
The two campuses are less than 100 miles apart (NC State in Raleigh and ECU in Greenville, NC), keeping with the Week 1 theme of location-based rivalries, with Thursday's Backyard Brawl thriller. In North Carolina, over the years there has been no shortage of drama between the two teams on any given game day.
A Different Kind of Backyard Brawl
The rivalry began in 1970 and was played annually for 18 years until 1987. After that game, an ECU victory at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, there was damage done to the goalposts and playing surface, as well as numerous fights, injuries, and arrests. A similar disruption had occurred two years prior in 1985. It caused then NC State Athletic Director Jim Valvano to not renew the game for the following season. They would clash in 1992 in the Peach Bowl before playing at a neutral site in 1996. It took the North Carolina State Legislature enacting legislation mandating an annual meeting to renew the rivalry in 1997. All of this served as the backdrop for Saturday's season opener against 13th-ranked NC State at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville.
It was a back and forth affair that saw momentum swing in both directions throughout the game. Special teams would be a big factor throughout this game. ECU jumped out to an early lead before the Wolfpack would answer twice to take a 14-7 lead into the second quarter. NC State would tack on another touchdown to end the first half with a 21-7 lead over the Pirates. The third quarter saw the Pirates get closer with a six and a half minute drive that led to a 1-yard TD pass to Shane Calhoun from quarterback Holton Ahlers. The score was 21-14 heading to the fourth quarter.
The two squads traded drives that ended without scores for most of the quarter. The Pirates even had a goal-line stand to place momentum firmly back on their side, particularly playing at home. Unfortunately, they weren't able to ride that wave to a score and had to punt the ball away. That would all change, however, at the 5:30 mark. NC State quarterback Devin Leary dropped back to pass, leading to an interception by Jireh Wilson, who would run the ball back inside the NC State 30-yard line before finally being tackled. Four plays later running back Rahjai Harris would punch it into the end zone for an ECU touchdown, bringing the Pirates to within one point.
The Bad-Shank Redemption That Wasn't
Kicker Owen Daffer, who succeeded placekicker Jake Verity for the ECU football program, would trot out to attempt a kick that would tie the game with just under three minutes left. The sophomore would end up pulling the kick to the left, leaving the Pirates trailing by one. He would bury the ensuing kickoff in the end zone for a touchback, after which ECU's defense would force a three-and-out.
NC State was forced to punt the ball back to the Pirates, who would start their final drive at their own 29-yard line. Quarterback Holton Ahlers would lead the offense down to the NC State 24-yard line, capped by a 9-yard run from Ahlers on third down. The stage was now set for a potential redemption story for Daffer.
With nine seconds left, head coach Mike Houston would send Daffer out for a game-winning 42-yard field goal attempt to hand the win to ECU to start the season.
Unfortunately, he pushed the kick to the right, and the Pirates fans were left stunned.
A shocked ECU fan looks on after the missed field goal. pic.twitter.com/457u3a0YRt
— Baseball GIFs (@gifs_baseball) September 3, 2022
It was an early taste of the heartbreak these student-athletes can experience, as well as the drama that college football has to offer, even in the early season. The Pirates will need to shake this loss off quickly as they prepare for their next matchup on Saturday, September 10th, when they'll take on Old Dominion. NC State, who should feel lucky to have escaped with the win, will face Charleston Southern next week.
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