Key calls go against ECU late in loss to Tulsa

East Carolina wide receiver Tyler Snead (22) catches a touchdown pass past Tulsa safety Cristian Williams (3) during an NCAA college football game Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla. (Ian Maule/Tulsa World via AP)

Three key plays all went Tulsa’s way on a last-minute scoring drive that gave the Golden Hurricane a 34-30 home win over East Carolina on Friday night.

After ECU took a three-point lead with 4:24 left to play, Tulsa drove 65 yards in 11 plays to score a touchdown on a one-yard run by T.K. Wilkerson.

The route Tulsa took to the end zone likely had Pirate fans pulling out their hair, however.

East Carolina appeared to stop the Tulsa drive before it reached midfield when Warren Saba batted away a fourth-down pass. Several seconds after the play had ended, however, a pass interference flag was thrown from 25 yards away. Replays showed that Saba had his hand on receiver Keylon Stokes’ back, although the officials closest to the play saw nothing illegal.

On the very next play, East Carolina appeared to get a break, punching out the ball on an 11-yard Wilkerson run and falling on the fumble. The play was reviewed, and replays seemed to show that Wilkerson lost his grip on the ball multiple times while running before, in the eyes of replay officials, securing it again as he went to the ground. That made the fumble a post-play event, after the running back was already down, and the play was reversed, giving Tulsa the ball back.

On another fourth down play, at the 19, Josh Johnson made a sliding catch for a first down, although replays showed the ball may have hit the ground as he secured it. Replays didn’t show enough reason to overturn the play, and the drive once again continued.

Two plays later, Wilkerson scored from one yard out to give Tulsa the lead with 29 seconds left. ECU got in position for a Hail Mary as time expired, but the ball bounced off a receiver’s hands in the end zone to drop the Pirates to 1-4, 1-3 in the AAC.

Three thoughts

1. East Carolina had a chance to put the game out of the referees’ hands before the final drive. The Pirates jumped out to a 17-3 lead at halftime, but Tulsa rallied for 17 points in the third quarter. Starting with the last full drive before half, however, ECU saw four of five possessions end with field goal attempts, including one where the Pirates reached the Tulsa 5-yard line. The threes instead of sevens allowed the Hurricane a chance to get back into the game.

2. Both teams struggled with penalties. The late pass interference flag on Saba was the 13th of the game against East Carolina, for a total of 105 yards. Tulsa was flagged 10 times for 109 yards. Six of ECU’s first downs and three of Tulsa’s came on penalties.

3. The tough ending overshadowed a strong offensive night for the Pirates. Holton Ahlers completed 38 of 50 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns. Tyler Snead caught 16 passes for 108 yards and a score, and Rahjai Harris rushed 21 times for 118 yards.

Number to Know

5 minutes 19 seconds — Tulsa led for a total of 319 seconds in the game, all of them coming in the final 10 minutes of the game. The Golden Hurricane took a 27-23 lead with 9:14 remaining that stood for a total of one drive, as ECU responded. Tulsa added another 29 seconds in the lead in the last half minute of the game.

They Said It

“The pass interference, that’s a judgment call. It was fourth down so, obviously, there must have been something there for him to call it. You don’t see that call often on fourth down, so it must have been blatant.

”On the fumble, it must have been very obvious because, usually, you would not overturn it unless it was just obvious that his arm was down before it came out.

”The last pass, the video they showed on the Jumbotron clearly showed the ball bouncing as he’s making the catch. The ball’s on the ground. So I don’t understand how it got ruled a catch, but I’m not the replay official. We were talking on the sideline about how much time we had left and how we were going to kill the clock. Our kids are absolutely devastated.”

— ECU coach Mike Houston doing his best to avoid a fine for criticizing officials

Player of the Game

Jireh Wilson, Pirates linebacker — On a night when the East Carolina offense was moving the ball up and down the field, the Pirates defense needed to stop Tulsa from responding. They were able to do so in the first half, although Tulsa later rallied.

One of the biggest contributors on defense was Wilson, who led the team with nine tackles, including a team-high seven solo stops. He also had 1.5 sacks, 1.5 tackles for loss and forced a fumble early in the fourth quarter that gave the Pirates the ball back in Tulsa territory two plays after they had a chip-shot field goal blocked.

Critical thinking

The three calls on the final drive all needed to go against ECU for Tulsa to have any chance of winning, and they did. All three were close plays, and a case can be made on the Pirates’ behalf on all three.

The fact of the matter is that the game should never have been that close.

East Carolina had the offensive production and enough key plays on defense, but the Pirates gave up their early lead with a baker’s dozen penalties, three turnovers and settling for field goals in the red zone (one of which was blocked). Improve any of those areas and the fourth quarter would have consisted of Ahlers and company killing clock.