ECU wins home opener against Towson 28-20

GREENVILLE, N.C. (ECU Media Relations) – East Carolina chalked up win No. 1 in the 2015 season Saturday night. They have No. 22 to thank for that. Make that a double.

Chris Hairston, wearing No. 22 for the offense, turned in a career night to kick off his senior season and Terrell Richardson, wearing No. 22 defense, delivering a teeth-shattering hit to break up a fourth-down pass to preserve a 28-20 over a tenacious Towson team in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

The Pirates never trailed in their opener against the confident and pesky Tigers, but also never felt quite secure until Richardson’s hit on Sam Gallahan turned the ball over just less than two minutes to play.

“Wins are hard,” sixth-year ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill said. “It was a great win. I’m proud of the kids for pulling it out. …. We’ll grow from it as a team and as a staff, but it was good to get a win.”

For Hairston, it was good to be in the spotlight after enduring a couple of injuries and playing in a backup role. The fifth-year senior from Winston-Salem came into the game with 714 career yards and five touchdowns. Against Towson, he racked up 154 yards on 18 carries (an 8.6 per-carry average) and scored four touchdowns. His 11-yard scamper with 12:21 left punctuated his evening and gave the Pirates a 28-13 lead and just enough cushion.

“This is my fifth year here,” Hairston said. “I played behind some great backs, and I learned a lot from them. I’m glad I got the opportunity to do that, and it helped me to get to where I’m at today and gave me a chance to do what I did tonight.”

Hairston became the first Pirate back since Chris Johnson in 2007 to have four rushing touchdowns in a game and was ECU’s first 100-yard rusher in a season-opener since Jamie Wilson had 183 yards against West Virginia in 1999. He also tacked on a career-high five receptions for 19 yards.

“Well you’ve earned it when you’re a guy like Chris,” McNeill said. “I think Chris would be the first to say that the offensive line created running lanes for him, and we talked about that with the group. The job is to create those running lanes, and they did.

“Chris did a great job of also reading and being a great runner. He did a good job in protection as well. I was proud of Chris.”

Hairston, indeed, gave credit to the big boys plowing the way in front of him.

“I owe it all to the O-line, my receivers and tight ends for blocking,” he said. “They did a tremendous job tonight. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Hairston was among a handful of returnees counted on to step up their game with the departure of the record-setting duo of quarterback Shane Carden and receiver Justin Hardy, along with wide receiver Cam Worthy and running back Breon Allen.

Blake Kemp assumed the duty of replacing Carden, although it was not his job until Kurt Benkert suffered a season-ending knee injury less than two weeks before the season-opener.

The left-hander, taking a snap in a game for the first time since transferring from Mesa (Ariz.) Community College and sitting out a year, peppered Towson’s defense with a bevy of short, high-percentage throws, spreading the ball to nine different receivers and connecting on 29 of 37 passes for 230 yards. Although he did not throw a TD pass, he also avoided turning the ball over.

“It was a little bit too close for me,” Kemp said of the game’s outcome. “But it was fun, and it kept me into it.

“The running game, the offensive line, they all played great,” Kemp said. “I love those guys up front, and Chris did a great job pounding the rock.”

Towson did its share of pounding away on offense. The Tigers compiled more first downs (27-23) and more passing yards (237-230), while controlling the ball seven-plus minutes more than the Pirates (33:36-26:24). Darius Victor also was beast for the Towson running game, bulling his way to 137 yards on 28 carries.

Quarterback Connor Frazier completed 15 of 28 passes for 221 yards and one touchdown and also scored on a 1-yard run.

Hairston energized the Dowdy-Ficklen crowd of 40,712 early when he found a crease on a third-down draw play and darted 45 yards to put the Pirates on the board just 2:52 into the new season. Kemp had kept the drive alive with a six-yard scramble on an earlier third down.

“The O-line just held their blocks,” Hairston said of his touchdown dash. “All they needed was to hold it for a couple of seconds and I was able to bounce it out, and DaQuan Barnes was downfield holding his block on the corner … and I just cut off of that.”

Towson answered with a 12-play, 82-yard drive to tie, but Hairston back in the end zone on a 1-yard run to cap off a 15-play drive that put ECU 14-7.

The Tigers clawed back once again but stalled at the 6, settling for a 23-yard field goal.

Kicker Connor Torruella, who was perfect on four PAT kicks as the heir apparent to scoring leader Warren Harvey, missed a 37-yard attempt late in the half.

Towson threatened to take the lead to start the second half but sputtered again inside the 10 and pulled within 14-13 Sam Hurwitz’s 31-yard field goal.

Kemp quickly led the Pirates back down the field, mixing in Hairston runs with quick tosses to Isaiah Jones (six catches for 77 yards). Hairston finished off the drive with a 1-yard run and a 21-13 lead.

The Pirates were unable to cash in a fumble recovery but stopped Towson on a fourth-and-12 from the 38. It took 10 plays to punch it in, with Hairston going the final 11 yards.

Hairston did the bulk of the work on the drive, giving the Pirates a boost to start the final quarter.

“The fourth quarter always has that little umph in them,” he said. “It’s the last quarter so you are trying to give it your all and go even harder than you did in the first half.”

Towson still wasn’t done. The Tigers scored with 7:53 left to draw within 28-20, then forced a Pirate punt. Frazier directed a drive to the 16, but Richardson drilled Gallahan as he hauled in a pass from Frazier, jarring the ball loose and sealing the victory.

“That’s probably the biggest hit I’ve ever had in my life,” Richardson said. “In high school I didn’t play safety, so I never got a running start.”

Richardson said he had deep-middle responsibilities, backpedaled on the snap and then read the underneath route.

“I was just waiting for which one he threw it to,” Richardson said. “When I saw him throw it, it was just go get him.”

Now it’s on the Florida, which defeated ECU in last year’s Birmingham Bowl. And senior linebacker Zeek Bigger, who had 10 tackles Saturday, knows ECU needs to take its game up a notch.

“We didn’t panic,” Bigger said. “Nobody was panicked. We just know we got a long time. We’ve got nine straight games. This is one of them. Things happen. You’ve just go to back in and correct things. That’s what we’re going to do.”

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