ECU wins conference championship
By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on December 5, 2009 11:56 PM
GREENVILLE -- Case Keenum's mind-boggling, record-setting performance couldn't sink East Carolina on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
Van Eksridge and Travis Simmons made sure it didn't happen.
Simmons' tipped pass, which led to Eskridge's second pick of the day, preserved the Pirates' 38-32 victory over the No. 18-ranked Cougars in the Conference USA football championship game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
East Carolina (9-4 overall) emerged the first CUSA team to win back-to-back crowns since the league went to the two-division and title game in 2005.
After the final seconds ticked away and while the players jumped around at midfield, ECU head coach Skip Holtz pumped his fist, leapt up in the air and waved a rally towel as he ran toward the ECU fans on the visitors' side of the stadium. He repeated the scene on the other side of a soggy Bagwell Field and hugged MVP Dwayne Harris, who finished with 198 all-purpose yards, as fans roared their approval.
"That was one great football game with two teams out there competing until the end," said Holtz. "I can't say 'thank you' enough to this entire senior class for their attitude, focus and determination. They have truly been a blessing to me. They have never shied away from a challenge in any way, shape or form.
"It was great to win this game and play it at home in front of our fans. This celebration had an entirely different feel happening at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. It was absolutely awesome."
The Pirates claimed their fourth victory over a nationally-ranked opponent, and just their 11th overall in 59 tries in program history. They clinched a berth in the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl against a Southeastern Conference representative on Jan. 2. Bowl invitations will be extended today.
ECU collected its sixth conference title overall.
"I told the guys before the season that we were going to make history," said sixth-year Pirates quarterback Patrick Pinkney. "To be the first quarterback to win back-to-back championships in school history is special. You can't ask for more than that. I thank my teammates and coaches for believing in me.
"I wasn't going to let them down."
Pinkney completed 21 of 34 passes for 262 yards and one touchdown. Harris hauled in nine passes for 123 yards, including a 22-yard strike on the Pirates' opening possession of the second half.
Meanwhile, Keenum established career and CUSA championship game records for completions (56), attempts (75), yards (527) and touchdowns (5). But the most-telling stat were his three interceptions, two which led to ECU scores.
Neal Levin's pick of Keenum in the end zone led to Giavanni Ruffin's 6-yard touchdown run which put the Pirates ahead 14-13 in the second quarter. Eskridge's first interception set up Dominique Lindsay's 1-yard plunge just two minutes into the final quarter.
Eskridge has six interceptions this season and 11 for his career.
"Case Keenum is a great quarterback," said Eskridge. "We had to focus on keeping everything inside and tackling well. Our job on the back end was to lock those guys down as long as we could. Our front four is great and put some pressure on Houston in the second half."
Keenum didn't stop throwing.
A Heisman candidate, the senior closed the gap to 38-32 on a 24-yard pass to James Cleveland with 3:24 left in regulation. Houston stopped ECU on a fourth-and-1 on the next series and Keenum had 94 seconds to move his team back down the field.
The Cougars drove into the red zone when Simmons got a hand on Keenum's pass. Eskridge pulled it down and the Pirates ran out the clock.
"This year with the final play coming up with the pick was a dream come true," said Eskridge. "I'd like to compliment Travis because he knocked it loose. I was just in the right place at the right time. It's a dream come true winning at home in front of the fans.
"It's a great day."