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East Carolina rudely welcomes FAU to Conference USA

The SportsXchange

GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Carl Pelini, Florida Atlantic's second-year coach, wasn't pleased with his team's offensive performance.

The Owls have two young, inexperienced quarterbacks trying to manage the offense. And both struggled in a 31-13 loss to the East Carolina Pirates on Thursday night at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville.

Sophomore Jaquez Johnson and freshman Greg Hankerson combined on 23-for-40 passing for 178 yards. Both quarterbacks threw an interception.

"It's been difficult, but we knew that," Pelini said. "We graduated a senior quarterback and we didn't have a lot of depth at that position.

"We knew no matter what, at least early in the season, we were going to have to throw them in there and make them grow up."

Florida Atlantic got its first taste of Conference USA football.

It didn't go as planned. The Owls turned the ball over three times in their conference debut.

FAU (0-2) gained 282 yards on offense (104 rushing, 178 passing). East Carolina countered with quarterback Shane Carden's 191 passing yards and two touchdowns, and Vintavious Cooper's 95 rushing yards.

"It's big," East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. "All wins are big, but this first one in conference is very big. We talked about that as a group and we challenged them as a group."

Thursday's game was the first meeting between the schools. FAU joined C-USA after competing in the Sun Belt Conference. ECU (2-0) is set to become a member of the newly formed American Athletic Conference next season.

"We knew it was going to be a good contest," Pelini said. "Most people picked them to win our division, and you can see why. They are a really good football team."

The Owls' offense mustered only a pair of field goals and missed two attempts as well.

After dominating most of the first half, the Pirates' defense provided an early third-period spark.

Josh Hawkins grabbed a deflection off the hands of the Owls' DeAndre Richardson and the Pirates' sophomore cornerback had his second career interception. He ran the ball back to the Owls' 5-yard line and from there Florida Atlantic defense stiffened and the Pirates had to settle for a 22-yard field goal less than five minutes into the second half.

Chris Hairston's four-yard run gave the Pirates a commanding 31-6 cushion at the end of three quarters.

FAU still had some fight left, though. William Dukes capped off an 11-play drive with a one-yard touchdown catch with 1:03 remaining.

In the first half, the Owls' defense had two sacks, recovered a fumble and never really allowed East Carolina's offense to control the ball.

However, the Owls' offense, featuring a two-quarterback system, failed to take advantage of the defense's solid effort.

"I thought our defense played well enough to win the game," Pelini said. "We held their offense to 300 yards and put the pressure on their quarterback and defended the short field."

Johnson and Hankerson combined for 5 of 10 passing for 47 yards, and FAU amassed 114 yards of offense in the early going.

"I think it was just a rhythm thing," Johnson said. "Whoever had the most rhythm in the second half, coach gave them a chance to go.

"We just have to keep working to get better."

Davon Grayson, ECU's true freshman, found a seam, reached up and pulled in the game's first touchdown. In front of a sea of Pirates' fans decked out in all black, Grayson had his fourth touchdown grab in two games -- an 18-yard score on East Carolina's opening drive.

The Owls' defense, backed by a sack from Cory Henry, forced ECU to punt deep in its own territory, but the offense failed to capitalize, which was a sign of things to come.

Robert Lohnes returned the punt to the Pirates' 27-yard line. FAU gained two yards and settled for a Mitch Anderson 42-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 7-3 with a little more than three minutes showing on the first-quarter clock.

Anderson extended his range on the Owls' next possession with a field goal from 46 yards.

The Pirates answered on the ensuing kickoff. Lance Ray raced down the field 85 yards, setting up ECU's offensive possession on FAU's 12-yard line.

Four plays later, Carden connected with Justin Hardy on a one-yard slant in the back of the end zone.

Hankerson tossed an interception on the Owls' next offensive play. Maurice Falls returned it to the 12-yard line, and three Cooper runs later, ECU had opened its advantage to 21-6 early in the first half.

Anderson missed a 37-yard field goal with a minute remaining in the half that would have made the halftime score, 21-9.

East Carolina compiled 312 yards of offense.

Notes: East Carolina received the opening kickoff for the 13th consecutive game. ... ECU has scored on its first drive in both games this season. ... Junior Maurice Falls had his first interception with the Pirates. ... ECU wide receiver Hardy extended his streak to 25 games with multiple receptions. ... Florida Atlantic's Brandin Bryant and Adarius Glanton each had eight tackles.
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