GREENVILLE — East Carolina turned in a complete effort just when it needed one most.
As a result, the Pirates can start thinking about their postseason plans.
Shane Carden passed for 305 yards and four touchdowns, three to Havelock High graduate Danny Webster, and ECU rebounded from a potentially derailing blowout with a 48-28 Conference USA win over Houston on Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Webster caught his first three touchdown passes of the season for the Pirates (6-4, 5-1 C-USA), who became bowl-eligible a week after falling 56-28 at home to Navy.
“It was a tough week to battle back from,” third-year ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. “I thought it showed a lot about our character.”
And it showed right away. The Pirates bolted to a 21-0 lead by the 12:40 mark of the second quarter, scoring touchdowns of 6, 12 and 9 yards on Carden-to-Webster connections.
Mark Roberts scored on a 5-yard pass from David Piland to pull the Cougars (4-5, 3-2) to within 34-21 with 11:26 left in the game, but ECU scored twice in a 46-second span to seal it.
Vintavious Cooper’s 22-yard touchdown run and Ty Holmes’ 28-yard interception return for a score with 2:01 remaining removed all doubt.
Cooper, a slippery junior, carried 33 times for 140 yards and a touchdown, turning in his third straight 100-yard rushing performance.
The Pirates racked up 550 yards of total offense while holding Houston to 369. The Cougars punted seven times and went 3 for 12 on third downs.
“It was a game of third downs,” first-year Houston coach Tony Levine said. “Offensively, we couldn’t sustain any drives. We couldn’t move the chains.”
The Pirates had little trouble for most of the crisp, cloudless afternoon, scoring eight of the 15 times they had the ball. Warren Harvey kicked field goals of 28 and 31 yards but missed from 47 in the fourth quarter to snap a streak of 10 straight successful attempts.
Webster, a former star quarterback at Havelock High School, caught a team-high six passes for 46 yards. He said his early success Saturday felt slightly familiar.
“It’s starting to slow down a little bit like it was in high school,” Webster said. “High school was a little slower, and you kind of had a little more time to make decisions, especially while you’re running the ball and trying to make plays for your team. So in that aspect, yes, it felt a little like back in high school.”
Carden was happy for his 5-foot-10-inch, 177-pound teammate, who had caught 17 passes this season without scoring.
“I know he’s a heck of a player, and it was good to get him in the offense, get him some touchdowns today,” Carden said. “I like the way he plays. He’s a fiery guy and he loves to block, so it was good to finally get him in the end zone with the ball.”
Carden and Webster contributed to an atrocious start for the Cougars, who had just one first down on their first five possessions and went three-and-out four times in that span. They made no significant progress until a 40-yard desperation heave from Piland to Roberts set up Piland’s 10-yard touchdown strike to Larry McDuffey to make it 28-7 with 5 seconds left in the first half.
Houston had 136 yards of total offense in the half, 75 of it on that final drive. ECU, meanwhile, punted just once in the half.
The Pirates caught what should have been a huge break when an apparent 56-yard touchdown pass from Piland to Shane Ros early in the third quarter was nullified. The officials ruled that Ros fumbled the ball into the end zone, resulting in a touchback for ECU.
But Cooper promptly fumbled the ball back to the Cougars on ECU’s 34-yard line, setting up Piland’s 34-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah Sweeney one play later to pull Houston to within 28-14.
The Pirates, however, did enough to keep the visitors at arm’s length, winning the time of possession battle by a nearly 3-to-1 margin while keeping Houston one-dimensional.
The Cougars, who are among the nation’s leaders in passing, had 341 yards through the air but just 28 yards on 11 rushes.
The solid first half, ECU’s players said, was critical.
“I think it was good to come out and start fast,” said safety Damon Magazu. “Our offense was moving the ball with ease, and our front seven was flying around, making a lot of plays.”
And now, with a long-awaited open date next Saturday, they’ll have two weeks to enjoy it. They visit Tulane on Nov. 17.