(Saturday, December 5th)
Final Score: East Carolina 38, (18) Houston 32
Greenville, NC (Sports Network) - Dominique Lindsay and Giavanni Ruffin combined for 130 rushing yards and four touchdowns, as East Carolina held off 18th-ranked Houston, 38-32, to claim its second consecutive Conference USA title.
Pat Pinkney completed 21-of-34 passes for 262 yards and a touchdown for the Pirates (9-4), who last season won at Tulsa to claim the conference championship. With the victory, ECU secured a spot in the Liberty Bowl on January 2 against an SEC opponent.
"It was great to win this game and play it at home in front of our fans," ECU head coach Skip Holtz said. "This celebration had an entirely different feel happening at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. It was absolutely awesome."
Dwayne Harris caught nine passes for 123 yards and a score for the Pirates, who had claimed the East Division title to reach the conference championship game. Van Eskridge came away with an interception in the end zone in the final minute with Houston driving for a potential game-winning score.
Case Keenum completed 56-of-75 passes for 527 yards and five touchdowns, and was intercepted three times for West Division-champion Houston. James Cleveland had 19 receptions for 241 yards and three scores for the Cougars (10-3), who had captured the Conference USA title in 2006.
Houston's Matt Hogan missed three extra-point attempts in the loss.
Ruffin's 20-yard touchdown run with 6:39 left in the game capped a 64-yard drive and put ECU ahead 38-26.
The Cougars responded with a score of their own to stay within a score. The 13-play, 83-yard drive took just over three minutes, as most of the plays were passes.
Keenum ended the drive by threading a 24-yard pass over the middle to the end zone for Cleveland, who made the catch between a pair of defenders. Hogan had the extra point blocked, however, to keep Houston's deficit at 38-32 with 3:24 left.
The Cougars' defense then forced East Carolina to a 4th-and-1, and Holtz elected to go for it. But Lindsay was stopped for no gain, giving Houston the ball at its own 36 with 1:47 to play.
Houston picked up first downs by inches, as Keenum completed a 10-yard pass to Tyron Carrier to bring the ball near midfield. Keenum later scrambled for a 10-yard gain and another first down at the ECU 44. Keenum's five-yard throw to Cleveland a few plays later caused some confusion, as the officials had not appeared to readily sort out whether or not it was a first down.
They set the clock at 52 seconds and measured that Houston had, in fact, gotten another first down.
On the next play, Keenum aired out a pass to the left side of the end zone for L.J. Castile, who had position in front of his defender. But the ball went through Castile's hands before it caromed to Eskridge, who snagged it to seal the victory.
"This year with the final play coming up with the pick was a dream come true," Eskridge said. "I'd like to compliment Travis Simmons because he knocked it loose. I was just in the right place at the right time."
Houston got on the board with five minutes left in the first quarter, as Cleveland caught a pass from Keenum between defenders and raced into the end zone for a 57-yard score.
Lindsay's one-yard run with 1:27 left evened the game before Houston went back in front nearly two minutes into the second quarter. The Cougars took over at the ECU 38 after Travis Simmons fumbled on a punt return, and Keenum ended the short drive with a four-yard pass to Cleveland. But Hogan missed the extra point to keep the Cougars' lead at 13-7.
Levin Neal intercepted Keenum deep in Pirates territory later in the second quarter, and the turnover led to another ECU touchdown. The Pirates went 80 yards in seven plays, the last being a five-yard run by Ruffin, making it a 14-13 ECU lead with 4:21 to go in the half.
But the Cougars marched for another score before the break, this time a 21- yard pass to Carrier with 25 seconds to go. Again Hogan missed the point-after try, and Houston took a 19-14 edge into halftime.
East Carolina then used a dominating third quarter to grab the lead. The Pirates scored on the opening drive of the period, as Pinkney completed a 22- yard throw to Harris for a score nearly three minutes in.
Houston got into ECU territory on the ensuing drive but came up empty again because of a turnover, as E.J. Smith fumbled after catching a screen pass. The Pirates took advantage, getting into field goal range before Ben Hartman hit from 37-yards out to make it a 24-19 ECU lead.
Eskridge had two interceptions, with the other one coming shortly into the fourth quarter, and his 30-yard return gave ECU the ball at the Houston seven- yard line.
The Pirates capitalized quickly, as Lindsay got to the end zone on the first play of the ensuing drive, putting the lead at 31-19 with 13:27 to go. Houston responded a little over three minutes later on a six-yard TD reception by Castile.
Harris, who totaled 198 all-purpose yards, was named the MVP of the contest...East Carolina became the first team in Conference USA history to record back-to-back championships since the league went to the two-division and title game format in 2005...Keenum's 56 completions set a C-USA Championship Game record. Cleveland's receptions, yardage and three scores set conference title game records in those categories...Houston had 557 total yards, compared to 413 for ECU...Houston's scoreless third quarter marked the fourth time all season the team failed to score in a quarter...Keenum's passage yardage Saturday gave him a school-record 5,449 this season. He joined Texas Tech's Graham Harrell (2007-08) as the only players in NCAA Division I history with multiple 5,000-yard passing seasons during their careers.
12/05 19:45:31 ET