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Pirates fall short at USF

E Carolina South Florida Football
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South Florida running back Jordan Cronkrite (2) runs the ball for an 80 yard touchdown run during the second half of an NCAA college football game against East Carolina, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018 in Tampa, Fla. (Octavio Jones/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, September 22, 2018

TAMPA, Fla. — In many ways it was a banner night for the East Carolina football defense Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium.

A grind-it-out game ended as a 20-13 win for host South Florida, however, thanks to a few big plays.

Jordan Cronkrite delivered the crushing blow, dashing through the middle of the Pirate defense for an 80-yard touchdown run to make it 20-13 with 10:13 remaining. USF (4-0) also connected on a 66-yard TD pass during the second quarter.

The Pirates (1-2) finished with a 412-296 advantage in yards, but their only touchdown came on a Holton Ahlers’ 2-yard run on the game’s opening drive. Their final drive ended on a Nick Roberts interception of Reid Herring on first-and-10 from the Pirate 23-yard line.

It was the American Athletic Conference opener for both teams.

“We are to the point where we have caught the people we need to catch in playing, and now our discipline is what has to get us over this next hump,” ECU coach Scottie Montgomery said. “We are working really hard. These kids are playing as hard as they can play.

“With or without those two plays, that was a great defensive performance. Our coordinators and defensive guys are not going to say it because they are such good people, but that was one of the best defensive performances I’ve ever been a part of.”

Two weeks ago, the Pirates shut out North Carolina after halftime in a 41-19 upset victory. Their game last week at Virginia Tech was then canceled because of Hurricane Florence.

USF had 33 rushing yards on 22 carries prior to Cronkrite’s game-winning charge.

The Pirates’ leading rusher was Ahlers, who carried 12 times for 48 yards. He was 1-for-2 on passes for three yards, and Herring finished 21-of-48 for 253 yards and the lone INT of the contest.

ECU’s Trevon Brown was the game’s leading receiver with 99 yards on six catches.

“Reid couldn’t get his feet set on a couple of throws and we have to get him well,” Montgomery said. “If not then we’ll have to get Kingsley (Ifedi) ready to go.”

One year after the Bulls blitzed the Pirates late in a 61-31 victory in Greenville, ECU’s much-improved defense kept the Pirates in the game all night in Tampa. The Pirates recorded six sacks, led by 1.5 by Alex Turner, on USF passer Blake Barnett and even secured their first turnover of the season with a fumble recovery.

It took ECU 11 quarters to get its first takeaway of the season. It came early in the second half. Davondre Robinson’s hit on receiver Deangelo Antoine knocked the ball loose and Michael Witherspoon pounced on the fumble with ECU trailing 13-10.

The visitors turned the opportunity into immediate points when Jake Verity’s 24-yard field goal on the ensuing drive tied it with 9:58 remaining in the third quarter.

Witherspoon started at cornerback for Colby Gore, who suffered a hit to the head during the UNC game and was out against USF.

The Pirates took the ball from the start, quickly engineering a spirited drive defined by clutch plays on third down and capped by Ahlers’ 2-yard TD. The Bulls surged in the second quarter, however, and led 13-7 early in the period.

ECU nearly pieced together a go-ahead drive to end the first half, but instead USF held strong in the red zone during the waning seconds. Verity’s 28-yard field goal for the Pirates made it a 13-10 deficit at the half.

Verity is 7-for-7 on field goals this year.

“We just didn’t execute as well as we did on the first drive,” Herring said. “I have to play better and it is very frustrating to play like that and lose by a touchdown when you were a couple plays away from it.”

The big question of whether freshman Greenville native Ahlers would play in a second straight game was answered during the opening drive when he replaced Herring a few times on short-yardage situations. His dive into the end zone was his third rushing TD in two games.

USF’s first touchdown was followed by Turner blocking the extra-point attempt late in the opening quarter to keep the score 7-6.

The Bulls took their first lead early in the second quarter, burning the back-end of the Pirate defense on a deep toss by Barnett down the sideline to Darnell Salomon for a 66-yard TD and 13-7 advantage. Salomon broke free, racing by ECU defenders rushing in as Barnett faked a wide receiver screen pass.

East Carolina had as many completions (11) as USF had pass attempts during a first half that featured no turnovers and only two penalties (both by the Bulls). Herring was 11-of-24 for 140 yards, Ahlers 0-for-1 and Barnett 8-of-11 for 138 yards and the key score to Salomon.

In all, ECU was penalized only twice for 10 yards.

Terrence Horne, a USF freshman who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in a win against Georgia Tech and is the nation’s leader in kick return average, tore his ACL during practice Wednesday and did not play. He is out for the season.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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