GREENVILLE — Coach Ruffin McNeill was leading the charge as the ECU Pirates stormed out onto the field prior to Sunday‘s season-opener at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The first-year Pirates’ coach, who graduated from ECU in 1980, raised his arms in an attempt to fire up the 50,010 in attendance.
The McNeill Era opened with a bang, as junior quarterback Dominique Davis launched a 33-yard touchdown pass to 6-foot-8 freshman Justin Jones on the final play to give the Pirates a miraculous 51-49 victory over Tulsa.
“We knew the situation and the clock,” McNeill said. “The thought process was to just drive it 70 yards and score. We felt like we had enough time with one timeout left. I was happy with the offense because that’s the way we practice those situations.”
Davis took the snap with five seconds remaining, rolled to his right and threw it up for grabs. Fortunately, the Pirates had the tallest player on the field waiting in the end zone.
The Pirates practice the play they call “Big Ben” two days before game day.
“I was really just trying to size it up and get where I need it to be. I guess I’m just lucky that I’m taller than everybody.”
In a back-and-forth shootout, Tulsa took a 49-45 lead with 1:22 remaining when quarterback G.J. Kinne completed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Charles Clay.
ECU took over at its own 34-yard line. Davis marched down the field to the Hurricane 33 with passes to Lance Lewis and Dwayne Harris. Davis’ final pass sent a raucous into the third largest crowd at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.”
“That last play was a great play,” said Harris. “The freshman (Jones) made a nice play at the end. It was probably one of the greatest plays of his life.”
Harris, who had 121 receiving yards on seven catches, scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. His 34-yard scoring grab gave ECU a 45-42 advantage.
“We run these plays every day, so when it comes game time, we make it look easy,” Harris said.
Davis, who made his debut with the Pirates, was 27 of 46 passing for 383 yards and five touchdowns. He also ran for 29 yards and another score.
Lewis, a junior from Concord, hauled in six passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was a great win,” Lewis said. “I got here late and had to catch up with everybody else. We’ve been working hard.”
ECU took a 17-16 halftime lead. But Tulsa struck first in the third quarter.
Kinne hooked up with tight end Clay Sears on a 12-yard touchdown with 8:00 to go in the third quarter to take a 23-17 lead.
Davis put the Pirates back on top, as he connected with Lewis on a slant pass. Lewis bounced off a Tulsa defender and raced to the end zone for a 43-yard score.
But the Pirates’ lead wouldn’t stand long, as Kinne rolled out and hit running back Jameel Owens on a 3-yard touchdown pass to give Tulsa a 29-24 lead at the end of the third. The Hurricane missed on the two-point conversion attempt.
Davis followed with a 2-yard touchdown run, capping off the Pirates’ 80-yard drive with 13:23 remaining in the game.
Tulsa answered immediately when Kinne completed a 75-yard touchdown pass to running back Willie Carter on third-and-10. The Hurricane once again missed a two-point conversion but took a 35-31 lead with 12:54 remaining.
The teams exchanged touchdowns the rest of the game.
“I’m proud of the kids and the way they kept fighting,” an emotional McNeill said. “These kids have sacrificed a lot. I was happy for my boys, the university and the fans.”
ECU senior running back Jonathon Williams rushed for 92 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
The Pirates racked up 538 yards of offense, and it was the first time since 2008 against UTEP that they scored at least 50 points.
The Pirates’ defense forced two turnovers (fumble and an interception) and blocked a field goal.
Tulsa piled up 579 yards of offense. Kinne was 28 of 43 passing for 399 yards and five touchdowns. Speedy wide receiver Damaris Johnson gained 299 all-purpose yards (56 rushing, 51 receiving, 151 kickoff returns and 41 punt return).
“Damaris is one of the best football players in the nation,” McNeill said. “We have the best one here in Greenville (Harris). Tulsa will do well this year.”
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Written by Adam Thompson