On a day when Zay Jones became college football’s most prolific pass catcher and East Carolina bid farewell to 19 seniors, it was Navy that had reason to celebrate at the end of a blustery Saturday afternoon in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with Navy over East Carolina 66-31.
After the Pirates blitzed to a 17-7 lead and recognized Jones, ECU’s dynamic senior wide receiver, for eclipsing former teammate Justin Hardy’s record for most receptions in an FBS career, the Midshipmen seized command and steamrolled to a 66-31 victory.
In the process, Navy (8-2) clinched the Western Division championship in the American Athletic Conference with a 6-1 record. The Pirates fall to 3-8 overall and 1-6 in the AAC with a season-ending trip to Temple left to conclude Scottie Montgomery’s first year as head coach.
“We have another game,” Montgomery said. “We have to get one on the road. We will come out and prepare. That is a beat-up team down there, no question about it.”
With ECU’s bowl hopes dashed, Jones’ pursuit of Hardy’s record and saluting the senior class highlighted the season finale for a paid attendance of 39,480. They would not have to wait long – Jones came in needing eight catches to reach 388 for his career and that in the bag less than four minutes into the second quarter.
“I am so happy for him,” Montgomery said. “He has just been wonderful. He had a seamless transition into this new staff and new situation and new mind-set. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Hardy, now playing for the Atlanta Falcons, joined Jones for a brief ceremony after the Pirates scored to take a 17-7 lead.
Jones finished with 12 catches for a career-high 212 yards and a pair of touchdowns, raising his career totals to 392 catches for 4,218 yards and 23 touchdowns. For the year, Jones has 151 catches for 1,685 yards.
“I have never been a part of anything like this where the guy had a chance to break the record at the beginning of the year,” Montgomery said. “He had so far to go to get it done. We are so happy he was able to get it done in front of his family but really in front of Pirate Nation.”
Only two other receivers caught passes on the day for ECU – Jimmy Williams had three for 21 yards, and Brandon Bishop had one for five yards. Senior James Summers provided some punch to the ground game with 137 yards on 14 carries, including a 77-yard touchdown. Gardner Minshew, making his first start in place of injured senior Philip Nelson, completed 16 of 25 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns.
But many other numbers ECU would like to forget. The Pirates surrendered nine rushing touchdowns – the most in school history – as Navy piled up a season-high 480 yards rushing and 593 yards overall. Navy also compiled a 28-12 advantage in first downs, struck for six plays of 30-plus yards, converted 7 of 10 third downs and controlled the ball for 35:40 (compared to 23:12 for ECU).
It was a bit of déjà vu, however. Navy rushed for eight touchdowns and scored 76 points in a visit to Dowdy-Ficklen in 2010 and had six rushing touchdowns against the Pirates in 2012 and 2015.
The 66 points allowed is the third-most in school history – ECU gave up 76 to Navy in 2010 and 79 to Guilford in 1932. ECU has now surrendered 166 points in three games and gave up 50-plus points in consecutive games for the first time in school history.
The 480 yards was the fourth-most surrendered in school history. Navy put up 512 in 2012 and 521 in 2010, trailing only West Virginia’s 536 in 2002.
Quarterback Will Worth spear-headed a Navy offense that scored on 10 of 12 possessions, rushing for 159 yards on 28 carries and four touchdowns and completing 3 of 5 passes for 113 yards. He also became the fifth player in Navy history to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in a season.
“He’s leading the way,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “The way we’re playing is a direct result of him. We’re tough. We’re hard-nosed. We don’t relent. We don’t back down. It’s just tenacity. His grit and determination have just enveloped our whole team.”
But Worth was far from alone in a Navy attack that used 10 different ball carriers. Bullish fullback Shawn White churned out 150 yards on just 11 carries and three touchdowns, marking the third consecutive week a Pirate opponent has had a duo of 100-yard rushers. Navy rarely put the ball in the air, but Jamir made catches of 30 and 36 yards and Tyler Carmona had one snag for 47 yards.
The Pirates simply could not keep pace. Three possessions that generated just 10 yards on nine plays in the second period and a muffed kickoff in the second half derailed any hopes of a senior-day win.
“We fought hard, but this is one of those games, especially when you play against a team like Navy,” Montgomery said. “The two three-and-out possessions … the muffed kickoff return make it hard to get into the game when you are trying to steal possessions.”
The day could not have started better for the Pirates, who scored on their first three possessions before bogging down for the remainder of the half.
Minshew connected on his first four passes on the opening drive, capping it a 40-yard strike to a wide-open Jones for a 7-0 lead.
Navy quickly answered with an 83-yard march to tie it, but Minshew and the Pirates went right back to work. Passes of 20 and 21 yards to Jones converted a pair of third downs, A 6-yard pass to Williams on third down put ECU in the end zone and made it 14-7.
Jones would tie then break Hardy’s record after a Navy punt. The record-breaker came on a 19-yard pass on an out pattern near the Midshipmen sideline, giving ECU a first down at the Navy 31.
Summers dropped a certain touchdown pass on the next play, and ECU had to settle for Davis Plowman’s 43-yard field goal, the eighth in a row the senior has made.
From there, Worth and Navy pushed the Pirates around, reeling off 24 points before halftime for a 31-17 lead then piling 14 more to open a 45-17 lead in the third period.
An 81-yard run by Summers and a 77-yard pass to Jones in the third quarter rewarded the few Pirates remaining in the plunging temperatures but were hardly enough to thwart Navy’s unstoppable offense.
White’s one-yard run capped a 12-play, 72-yard drive for a 59-31 lead, then reserve Jahmaal Daniel capped the scoring with a two-yard run after Navy took over on ECU’s 34 following a failed fourth-down attempt.