Even after playing three quarters highlighted by red-zone turnovers and porous third down defense, Duke still found itself down only three points to East Carolina with more than 10 minutes remaining and the ball.
Starting the drive from their own five-yard line, the Blue Devils steadily marched the ball downfield and looked like they could erase a game’s worth of mistakes with one final drive. But with just under five minutes left, junior quarterback Mike Schneider rolled out right and fired the ball toward tight end Andy Roland, only to have Pirate safety Zach Baker jump in front and intercept the pass.
East Carolina (1-0) gave the ball back to the Blue Devils (0-1) once more, but Schneider threw the ball into opposing hands for the third time, ending Duke’s hopes of winning its season opener. East Carolina ran out the clock and celebrated its 24-21 victory by dousing first-year head coach Skip Holtz with ice water, while Duke was sent back to the locker room sulking.
“Obviously I’m disappointed, disgusted,” head coach Ted Roof said after the game. “We had our opportunities and didn’t get it done. Everyone in that locker room is disappointed. Everyone in that locker room had a piece of it.”
After short offensive series from both teams to begin the game, East Carolina’s Travis Williams returned Chris Sprague’s punt 52 yards to the Blue Devils’ four-yard line. Two plays later, Pirates’ quarterback James Pinkney punched the ball in for the game’s first score.
The Blue Devils responded on the ensuing kickoff with a 100-yard return by Ronnie Drummer to even the score at seven.
But on the next drive Duke’s third-down defense was exposed for the first of many times during the game.
On the next drive, East Carolina made the first of its six critical third-down conversions during the game. Faced with a third-and-seven from the 50-yard line, Pirate receiver Aundrae Allison beat Duke cornberback Deonto McCormick in single-coverage and was hit in stride with a towering toss from Pinkney for a 19-yard gain.
That duo would hook up numerous times during the game, especially in crucial situations. Duke’s defense was, for the most part, able to contain ECU’s ground game on first and second downs, forcing the Pirates into third-down passing situations. But on several third-and-long situations, Pinkney dropped back, had plenty of time to see his options, and hit Allison.
“The thing that hurt us the most was third-down situations,” sophomore linebacker Patrick Bailey said. “We just need to dump them on third downs, and that really killed us down the stretch.”
For the day, Pinkney finished with 235 yards in the air on 17-for 21 passing with one throwing and two rushing touchdowns. Allison netted 163 yards on 10 receptions. The Pirates’ final touchdown, which put them up 24-14 with 43 seconds left in the third quarter, was set up by a fourth-down, 21-yard pass from Pinkney to Allison from Duke’s 33-yard line.
While ECU was able to score when it neared the goal line, the Blue Devils struggled to even hold onto the ball. Early in the second quarter, running back Justin Boyle said a “miscommunication” in the backfield between him and Schneider caused the players to collide and fumble the ball on the 15-yard line.
Early in the third quarter, with Duke down 17-14 and threatening to score from the Pirates’ four-yard line, Schneider forced a pass over the middle to wideout Ronnie Elliot only to have it picked off.
“The bottom line is we have to make good decisions and we have to get points when we get down there,” Roof said.
Schneider finished with just 139 yards on 15-for-28 passing on the day when he was finally supposed to cement his status as the leader of the Blue Devils. Junior Curt Dukes was called in to spell Schneider on several occasions, and his wishbone, option-based offense was able to penetrate ECU’s defense.
Boyle and starting tailback Cedric Dargan, who was still weak from the virus that held him out of Thursday’s practice, shared most of the rushing responsibilities. Boyle finished with 53 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries and Dargan had 49 yards on 13 attempts.
Roof must now regroup a disheartened team that expected to leave Greenville with a win and a positive outlook on the season.
“I don’t have a magic potion or a magic pill to give it,” he said. “We just have to keep working. We did some good things we just have to be consistent. We don’t get a second chance to play our first game.”
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