East Carolina 27, Tulsa 24
TULSA, Okla. (AP)—Patrick Pinkney had one last chance to hold up the family tradition and bring a conference championship back to East Carolina.
So he won this one for Dad.
Pinkney played mistake-free football, Ben Hartman kicked a 36-yard field goal with 1:43 remaining and East Carolina took advantage of seven turnovers to beat Tulsa 27-24 Saturday in the Conference USA championship game for its first league title in 32 years.
“He always joked about it, being the last team to win the conference championship,” said Pinkney, whose father, Reggie, was a star defensive back on the Pirates’ 1976 Southern Conference title team.
“I told him at the beginning of the year, `We’ll go get it this year.”’
While the Pirates (9-4) used the league’s best defense to force David Johnson, the nation’s top-rated passer, into a career-high five interceptions, Pinkney was solid throughout.
The senior threw for only 122 yards and one touchdown, but protected the ball all game long and routinely threw it away when there was nothing there. That put East Carolina in position for a final 12-play, 63-yard drive that chewed up 7 minutes and set up Hartman for the game-winner.
“We finished the game,” Pinkney said. “We got that drive, Ben hit that kick and that sealed it for us.”
The conference crown earned the Pirates a berth in the Liberty Bowl, which was offered to them on the field during the trophy presentation. Tulsa (10-3) will try to get its top-ranked offense back on track in time for its bowl game, most likely a second straight appearance in the GMAC Bowl—although coach Todd Graham said that wasn’t a done deal yet.
The normally efficient Johnson had thrown only 13 interceptions in 12 games this season, but was off-target from the start. He threw an interception on the first play of the game as the Golden Hurricane came out going for the long ball. It was a sign of things to come.
Pinkney responded by driving the Pirates 83 yards and throwing a 13-yard touchdown pass to fullback Kevin Gidrey off of play action.
The lead grew to 14-0 when Travis Simmons picked off another of Johnson’s passes and returned 72 yards it down the left sideline for a score. It was the first time all season that Johnson threw interceptions on consecutive drives.
He also fumbled on Tulsa’s opening drive of the second half, and Norman Whitley bolted 69 yards up the middle for a touchdown that put East Carolina up 24-17—with all of its points coming off of Golden Hurricane turnovers.
Van Eskridge sealed the win with 63 seconds left when he picked off a pass intended for top receiver Brennan Marion, who had crumpled to the turf after apparently injuring his right knee. It was Eskridge’s second interception of the game.
“They got a lot of pressure on the quarterback, and we didn’t have a very good answer for the things that they were doing,” Graham said. “They were putting stress on us, and we were turning the football over.”
Tulsa, which leads the nation with a 579-yard average, was held to season-low 399 yards. Johnson finished with 195 yards on 23-for-42 passing. It was only the third time this season he was held below 200 yards passing. His only touchdown pass was an 8-yarder to Jake Collums that tied the game at 24 with 8:57 left, before East Carolina’s final march
“It’s definitely not all on Dave. We just fell short as a team, as an offense,” said running back Tarrion Adams, who had a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs in a burst of 17 straight first-half points for Tulsa.
The Pirates won for the sixth time in seven games after a three-game losing streak wiped away the early BCS banter that followed their back-to-back upsets of Top 25 teams Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
“I thought this football team has had more heart, they have faced more adversity and they have hung together through some very difficult times when there’s not a lot of people that have believed in them,” coach Skip Holtz said. “There’s not a lot of people that gave them a chance in this football game.”
At the end of the day, though, Pinkney was able to follow in the footsteps of his father—who set a school record in that 1976 season with 197 return yards off of his six interceptions.
Holtz, too, followed the winning ways of his pop, former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz.
“It’s big for our program. That’s a long time for a conference championship,” Pinkney said, before Holtz interjected.
“Are you trying to say your dad is old?” the coach asked.
And once again, the quarterback had the perfect answer: “He’s got gray hair.”