GREENVILLE, N.C. — With light rain falling at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, the University of Tulsa players were in no hurry to get off the field, posing for a group photo like a team whose season didn’t end short of its goals.
Although there was no bowl appearance, there was a fourth win Saturday, a dominant 49-24 victory at East Carolina that produced smiles that have been rare during another disappointment-filled year.
“This season has been a little bit of a downer at some points, but we know what we can do and we kind of went out there and proved it today,” quarterback Zach Smith said. “It was a really fun game.”
In a performance featuring touchdowns scored by seven players, the Hurricane (4-8 overall, 2-6 in the American Athletic Conference) returned to the kind of offensive success that defined the first two seasons under Philip Montgomery and that has been mostly absent in the past two years. TU racked up 669 yards, its most against an AAC opponent.
The difference was the offensive line’s ability to block well enough to create holes for a run game that has been largely ineffective, and TU cashed in with 338 rushing yards, including a career-best day for Shamari Brooks.
“This is the way our offense is made to play,” Montgomery said. “When we’re effective running the football, it opens up everything.
“Our offensive line today really came out and we did a good job and inside and out from a run-game standpoint and that helped us. I thought our running backs did a great job of just seeing lanes and hitting them and just taking what they were giving us.”
Smith, for once having adequate time in the pocket, also delivered his best outing, throwing for five touchdowns with few misfires. He was 21-of-30 passing for 331 yards with one interception.
A faster-than-usual start propelled the Hurricane, with the first quarter including the season’s longest run play (64 yards by Brooks) and the longest pass play (66 yards by Sam Crawford Jr.). TU scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives, passes to Crawford, Keylon Stokes and Keenen Johnson, en route to a 21-3 halftime lead.
“That’s what you can do when you start fast and you don’t take your foot off the gas,” Smith said. “That’s what we did. We got up on them and we just kept pounding them.”
After Jaxon Player forced a third-quarter fumble that was recovered by Reggie Robinson II, the Hurricane reached the end zone again, on a dazzling 10-yard run by T.K. Wilkerson for the first of three touchdowns in a row scored by running backs.
Brooks, who declined a postgame interview request through the team spokesman, added to his highlight reel with a touchdown catch, and Corey Taylor II broke through with a 12-yard run to keep the game further out of reach.
The Pirates (4-8, 1-7) scored a trio of second-half touchdowns, primarily against reserves. TU emptied its bench, using Seth Boomer and Davis Brin at quarterback and underclassmen at nearly every position.
“It was good to see some of the younger guys get to come in the game and make plays, some of them for the first time,” Smith said. “It was exciting for them and for us as a team going forward.”
For the Hurricane’s final touchdown of the season, freshman tight end Ethan Hall from Bixby took a short pass from Smith and barreled his way to the end zone for a 39-yard score.
“I didn’t know he could do that, to be honest,” linebacker Cooper Edmiston said. “It was awesome to see those (younger) guys make plays.”