East Carolina manhandles App State

Published 1:37 pm Sunday, September 2, 2012

GREENVILLE – The number to remember Saturday in Greenville as East Carolina opened their 2012 football season against Appalachian State at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium was three.

It could’ve stood for what felt like triple-digit temperatures on the field and in the stands, or the first number in the 35-13 winning final score.

Maybe it stood for what really mattered to Head Coach Ruffin McNeill as he begins year-three of piloting the Pirate program: a defense that scored the first touchdown, a versatile first-year quarterback that helped put up 390 yards of offense, or the momentum-changing touchdown scored on special teams.

“All three sides of the ball contributed to the win,” McNeill said at his post-game press conference. “I’m proud to get the win. Wins are hard to come by in this business.

“I think we’ve got a chance to be a good football team if we’re able to sustain our focus and keep working,” he added. “Even though some tough things happened, we maintained our poise.”

The final result was a plundering that famous Pirate of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow – whose exploits were played out on the stadium’s giant screen scoreboard – would have been proud of.

Things didn’t start well for junior signal caller Rio Johnson, who won out in a four-way pre-season battle for starter. ECU’s first drive ended with an interception.

Worse still, the Mountaineers turned that miscue into the game’s first score and a 7-0 Appalachian State lead.

That same score held through the first quarter, but with App State’s first drive of the second stanza the tide on the old Pirate ship turned.

The ECU defense came up with the first big play of the day when linebacker Jeremy Grove popped the ball out of the grasp of scrambling ASU quarterback Jamal Jackson. The ball was then scooped and returned 45 yards to the end zone by Chip Thompson, who was playing in his first game for the Purple-and-Gold.

By now, the Pirates’ confidence was climbing like the temperature. On a punt, ECU’s Justin Hardy looked as if he was going to break one to the end zone for a score before he tripped over his own feet 43 yards later.

That set up the Pirates at the ASU 17 and three plays later East Carolina took the lead for good.  Johnson directed his first successful scoring drive by hitting receiver Andrew Bodenheimer on an 11-yard go route and the PAT made it 14-7, ECU.

The Mountaineers got a field goal as the first half horn sounded to cut it to 14-10 at halftime.

ASU scored again on a drive to open the quarter in the third as Drew Stewart’s second field goal of the game moved the Mounties within a point at 14-13.

But then came that ‘Pirate swag’ they loved on “Purple Haze Day.”

On the ensuing kickoff, ECU’s Lance Ray made sure there’d be no rumbling-bumbling-or-stumbling this time with a dazzling 90-yard return for a touchdown.  The Harvey Warren PAT made it 21-13 ECU.

The Pirates got two more scores in the fourth quarter.  Hardy redeemed himself from his trip-up in the first-half with a short four-yard catch from Johnson for one score; and Johnson himself nailed the coffin shut with a six-yard keeper for the 22-point winning finale.

The defense wore down the boys from Boone, who were probably not used to the humid airlessness of the day. Junior linebacker Kyle Tudor led the Pirates with 11 tackles, followed by nine from Grove, who also forced a second ASU fumble.

Still, App State coach Jerry Moore was proud of his team.

“I couldn’t do anything but hug every guy in the locker room and every coach in the locker room,” Moore said. “They played as hard as they could play.”

It was not a bad start for Johnson. The Atlanta native finished his first game as just ECU’s third quarterback in four years with 242 yards passing and three total touchdowns.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in him,” said Ahoskie native and former Hertford County High star, Will Simmons, who protected his quarterback all afternoon from his right guard position.

“He’s a good guy on and off the field,” he added. “We practice together, we groove together, and today he just picked us up.”

McNeill complimented his line for not just their protection of Johnson, but also their run-blocking; calling Simmons and his four line-mates “not five pennies, but one nickel.”

“He wants all of us to play together, not as individuals, but as one,” Simmons closed.

East Carolina (1-0) begins a three-game road swing next Saturday in Columbia against the South Carolina Gamecocks.  That’s followed by trips to Southern Mississippi and then to Chapel Hill to face the Tar Heels before returning to Greenville on the last Saturday of the month against Texas-El Paso.

“I’m ready,” said Simmons, reflecting on the 56-37 Pirate loss to the Cocks a year ago. “We’ll watch the film on Monday.  I can’t wait.”