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Pirates fall in shootout at SMU, 59-51

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East Carolina's Jsi Hatfield, center, runs after a catch for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against SMU, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

E Carolina SMU Football
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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, November 9, 2019

DALLAS — SMU continued its banner football season, giving some of its longtime fans more memories of the 1980s with an offense that produced droves of points and yards again at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.

East Carolina was great on offense Saturday as well, gaining more yards than its nationally-ranked opponent, but the Pirates lost 59-51 to No. 23 SMU in a game that featured eight second-half touchdowns and kept ECU (3-7, 0-6 American Athletic Conference) stuck at three wins for the season.

The positives for the Pirates, who are officially out of bowl consideration, were mainly on offense, and there were plenty. Behind quarterback Holton Ahlers and freshman receiver Tyler Snead, who caught 19 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns, ECU went score-for-score with the Mustangs and trailed by one point four separate times in the second half.

SMU (9-1, 5-1) scored 14 points during the final eight minutes to preserve a tight, wire-to-wire victory and leave the Pirates with a similar feeling to their 46-43 home defeat a week ago to No. 17 Cincinnati.

SMU got to nine wins in the regular season for the first time since 1984. ECU feels like it is close.

“It’s coming,” said Ahlers, who followed a school-record 535 passing yards versus the Bearcats with a 32-of-42 performance for 498 yards and six touchdowns without an interception. “Obviously we see it, because that is two ranked teams in the country that we (played) down to the last possession. We just have to get over the hump. We are good enough to win these games now and we believe that, we just have to figure out how to get over it.”

For all the offense — 644 total yards on 77 plays by ECU, which lost leading receiver C.J. Johnson to an undisclosed minor injury late in the first quarter, and 636 yards on 83 plays by the Mustangs — a huge play for the victors was their recovery of a muffed kickoff by Snead and Jsi Hatfield when SMU was leading 52-44 with 7:18 remaining. Shane Buechele, who passes for 414 yards and five TDs with an interception, threw a 3-yard touchdown to Proche on the ensuing possession for the Mustangs’ largest lead after halftime of 59-44 at the 4:18 mark.

“You have to do a great job of communication and call it loud,” Houston said of Snead and Hatfield running in to each other on the kickoff. “We work that stuff all the time and it’s really frustrating that happened, but I promise you nobody feels worse than those two kids. Snead had 240 yards receiving, and he feels like absolute dog crap right now. I could see it in his eyes in that locker room. … But those two jokers, I’m glad they are in our locker room."

Since a 24-21 win at Old Dominion on Sept. 28, ECU has lost five straight games with a mantra of the quest for win No. 4. The Pirates finished 3-9 each of the last three years under former coach Scottie Montgomery.

This high-scoring defeat dropped ECU’s losing streak against ranked opponents to eight games, and 2-13 since 2009. The Pirates also are 2-12 all-time versus AAC West opponents since American divisions began in 2015.

“I hurt for our kids because they fight and they are resilient,” Houston said. “They listen. I’m just really hurting for them. Some of those kids have been through a lot and they are fighters and they are winners. It is only a matter of time. … We went through the lumps early in the season learning to compete.

“They are competing at a high level, and we need to finish games and get wins. That is where we are at right now.”

Proche had 14 catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns. His final reception, on a fourth-and-3 play with a 4-yard slant, sealed the victory during the final minute.

SMU was 5-for-5 on fourth down. One conversion was on fourth-and-20, a 31-yard touchdown to tight end Kylen Granson for a 52-44 cushion as part of the 28 total points scored — 14 by each team — in the fourth.

“The time for ‘my bad’ and all that stuff is done,” Houston said. “That's out the window. We have to make the play.”

ECU rallied for 17 straight points after falling behind 28-10. SMU clung to a one-point lead three different times during the third quarter, and it also was 45-44 Mustangs in the fourth after Ahlers hit Snead for a 57-yard touchdown with 10:58 remaining.

The Pirates received the second-half kickoff and needed only three plays to create a one-point game, 28-27. Demetrius Mauney had a 32-yard rush on second down to set up a play-action pass to tight end Zech Byrd, who bobbled the ball but still brought it to his chest and remained on his feet to rumble the rest of the way for an easy 45-yard TD.

Back-and-forth scoring continued the rest of the quarter, which ended with SMU up 45-37. Xavier Jones had two rushing TDs in the third quarter — from 35 and 64 yards out — to pass Mustang great Eric Dickerson for the school’s single-season record for touchdowns.

Jones finished with 20 carries for 157 yards and three touchdowns. Granson had three touchdown receptions.

The Pirates’ leading rusher was Tay Williams with 61 yards on 14 carries.

Snead finished with the most receptions by a Pirate since Zay Jones’ 22 in 2016 at South Carolina.

“I think last week gave us a lot of confidence,” Snead said. “We were pushing the ball and moving and scoring. This week we came in with the same confidence. I think it just grew with every drive.”

A potential rout was brewing when Proche won a leaping contest with Pirate DB Warren Saba and secured a 51-yard score for a 28-10 Mustang advantage with 4:45 until halftime.

But ECU responded with 10 unanswered points for a 28-20 deficit at halftime.

Ahlers scrambled and found Snead waiting in the end zone for a 36-yard TD to make it 28-17. Jake Verity kicked a 37-yard field goal at the halftime buzzer. Verity finished 3-for-3 and as the nation's leader in field goals made.

The Pirates were on the verge of going three-and-out on each of their first three possessions when Hatfield streaked past the secondary and and down the field for a 68-yard catch and run touchdown to make it 7-7. That was the only tie of the day.

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

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