GREENVILLE, N.C. – In his first start at East Carolina, quarterback Dominique Davis provided one of the greatest finishes in the history of the program.
Davis heaved a 33-yard touchdown pass to a leaping Justin Jones as time expired to give the Pirates a wild 51-49 win against Tulsa on Sunday in coach Ruffin McNeill's debut at his alma mater.
Davis was 27 of 46 for 383 yards with five touchdown passes — two to Lance Lewis, two to Dwayne Harris — and one rushing TD in his first start for East Carolina (1-0, 1-0 Conference USA).
"That was the greatest experience of my life," said Davis, the former Boston College quarterback said. "There was probably people in the stands — our fans — who probably thought the game was over. But I told the team, 'Just trust.' As soon as I let it go, I knew he was going to catch it."
G.J. Kinne finished 28 of 43 for 399 yards for Tulsa (0-1, 0-1). His fifth touchdown pass — a 3-yard toss to Charles Clay with 1:22 left — appeared to have been enough for the Golden Hurricane.
But Davis whisked the Pirates downfield in nine plays. On the final snap, he launched the ball high toward a handful of players in the end zone. The 6-foot-8 Jones outjumped everyone for it, setting off a massive celebration.
"I've been doing this for 24 years, and that's never happened to me," Tulsa coach Todd Graham said. "We usually have a play we execute to put pressure on the quarterback so he can't make that throw. We called the play and didn't execute. That's our fault."
A brief review upheld the call and the Pirates, who were flagged for an excessive celebration, skipped the extra point and instead took a knee.
"I guess I'm just lucky I'm taller than everybody," Jones said. "My first thought (in the pile-up in the end zone) was just get the ball safe, and the next thing I know, I felt like I'm being crushed by a truck."
The teams combined for 1,117 total yards and the lead changed hands 12 times during a wacky, back-and-forth C-USA shootout in which defense seemed optional. Harris caught seven passes for 121 yards while Lewis finished with six grabs for 105 yards.
Those two were the biggest beneficiaries of Davis' big day. He led BC to the 2008 Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, but left the program and transferred to a junior college. He signed with East Carolina to play for Skip Holtz, but he faced an uncertain future when Holtz left for South Florida in January and McNeill returned to his alma mater to replace him.
The best-kept secret in Greenville this summer was who would start under center, and nobody knew who McNeill had picked until Davis trotted off the sideline for the first play from scrimmage. Davis said he was told "a while ago" that he would start but to keep it under wraps, though McNeill maintained all week that he was waffling between Davis and sophomore walk-on Brad Wornick.
Looks like he picked the right guy.
Davis had touchdown passes of 43 and 30 yards to Lewis and 6 and 34 yards to Harris. He scored on a 2-yard keeper on the fourth play of the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, his counterpart was just as productive. Kinne had TDs of 12 yards to Clay Sears, 3 yards to Jameel Owens and 75 yards to Willie Carter before he got a fortunate bounce on one of his throws. His hard pass into the end zone bounced high off Thomas Roberson. The crowd had already started cheering an apparent incompletion when Trae Johnson leaped and pulled it out of the air. That 11-yard touchdown put Tulsa up 42-38.
Still, there was 8:15 remaining — plenty of time for more fireworks.
Two plays after Davis' 26-yard pass to Joe Womack on fourth-and-3, he tossed a quick strike to Harris, who cut across the middle of the field and scored from 34 yards out to make it 45-42 with 6:05 left.
But that only meant it was Tulsa's turn to score again. Kinne led the Golden Hurricane 76 yards in 11 plays, capped by the flip to Clay that seemingly had decided it.
"We knew we had to put up a lot of points," Harris said. "We really took that as a challenge as an offensive team, and the quarterback took that as a challenge to get the ball to the receivers and make plays, and that's what we did."