Old Dominion University's football team pulled within three points of East Carolina with a little more than two minutes left when Kesean Strong leaped over a pair of ECU defenders for a one-yard touchdown run. Quarterback Stone Smartt, who set up the touchdown with a 45 yard pass, then passed to Chris Cunningham for the 2-point conversion..
But ODU's attempted onside kick was recovered by the ECU's C.J. Johnson and the Pirates used good time management to run out the clock and claim a 24-21 victory Saturday night at S.B. Ballard Stadium.
ODU was without four of its best offensive players, including wide receiver Eric Kumah and running back LaLa Davis, the Monarchs' top pass receiving and rushing threats. ODU was also missing right tackle Nick Saldiveri for most of the night, one of its best blockers, and wide receiver Jake Herslow, who is third on the team in receptions. All were sidelined by injuries.
Smartt had trouble finding open receivers and was often rushed out of the pocket. As a result, ODU managed had just 166 yards through three quarters, and finished with 293.
Smartt played well for ODU, completing 20 of 30 passes for 203 yards and two interceptions and rushing 22 times for 76 more.
"I thought Stone played a gutsy game," coach Bobby Wilder said. "He was courageous. He got hit a on a regular basis and he never backed down. He completed 67 percent of his passes and if you take out the sacks, he rushed for more than 100 yards.
"We’re going to win a lot of games with him at quarterback. He’s a good player and proved how tough he was out there."
The loss dropped ODU to 1-3 and the Monarchs begin Conference USA play next Saturday at home against Western Kentucky with a clear task: they must win five of eight conference games to become bowl eligible.
Wilder said, "I'm not thinking about bowl eligibility right now. I'm thinking about going 1-0 in Conference USA.
"I told the players in the locker room that the non-league is over, that right now we are 0-0. All that matters to this football team is beating Western Kentucky. If we beat them, that changes everything. Then we’re 1-0 in the league."
ODU trailed, 17-3, at the half, but quickly began to whittle down the ECU advantage.
After ODU went three and out on its first drive, ECU's Tyler Snead muffed the punt and it was recovered by ODU's Demetrius Stitmon at the 36. Five plays later, Smartt was rushed from the pocket and ran 5 yards for the touchdown. Nick's Rice's conversation kick narrowed the lead to 17-10.
Minutes later, linebacker Jordan Young intercepted a pass and ran it to the ECU 47, setting up another Rice field goal, this one from 39 yards, narrowing the Pirates' lead to 17-13.
But ECU then expanded the lead to 11 on a 75-yard, 8-play drive in which Ahlers completed 4 of 5 passes for 54 yards, including a 5-yarder to Anthony Watley for the touchdown with 10:40 left in the half that expanded the lead to 24-13.
In the first half, East Carolina scored first on a 29-yard field goal which was matched minutes late when Rice booted a 26-yarder for ODU.
Then, 12 minutes into the first quarter, came the first of two huge first-half breaks for ECU.
As ODU was attempting to punt deep in its own territory, Warren Saba rushed through an empty lane and blocked Bailey Cate’s put, and pounced on it in the end zone.
Then two minutes into the second quarter, ECU wide receiver Blake Proehl got open on single coverage and quarterback Holton Ahlers found him for a 72-yard touchdown that gave ECU a 17-3 lead.
After ODU’s Geronda Hall intercepted a pass and returned it to the 10, ECU then got its second big break.
On third and goal from the 1, Smartt appeared the carry the ball just beyond the end zone and fumble. The officials ruled it a fumble, recovered by ECU, and the call stood after the replay.
Hasaan Patterson led the Monarchs with a career-high four catches for 41 yards, while Strong had four receptions fo 33 yards.
Lawrence Garner had a game-high 10 tackles for ODU.
Notes: ODU game captains were Lawrence Garner, Isaac Weaver, Calvin Brewton, Kesean Strong … Running back Matt Geiger started for the first time in his career … After missing his first field goal of the season, Nick Rice has made five-straight after a 26-yarder in the first quarter and a 39-yarder in the third quarter … Stone Smartt has rushed for a touchdown in four-straight games to start the season for ODU … Hasaan Patterson caught a career-high X passes … Jordan Young registered his first career interception … Geronda Hall notched his second career INT … ODU blocked a field goal for the second-straight game, as Jeremy Meiser blocked a 45-yard kick … Nigel Fitzgerald’s 45-yard fourth quarter catch was the first of his career, and the longest by an ODU receiver this year.