GREENVILLE, N.C. — With Tulane needing a win in the worst way, coach Willie Fritz called for a trick play against East Carolina at the perfect time Saturday night.
Then the Green Wave still needed overtime to put the Pirates away after losing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Jonathan Banks ran 16 yards on a zone-read keeper on fourth-and-inches after faking a handoff to star running back Dontrell Hilliard, and the Wave defense stuffed running back Darius Pinnix on fourth-and-goal at the 1 as Tulane won 31-24 in overtime at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Tulane (4-6, 2-4 American Athletic Conference) kept its bowl hopes alive but will have to beat back-to-back teams with winning records — Houston at home and SMU on the road — to get to .500.
East Carolina (2-8, 1-5), once a consistent winner, is enduring its third consecutive losing season and lost to Tulane for the first time ever at home after eight victories.
“Hilliard did a good job of running the ball, and the defense was following him most of the game,” Banks said of his go-ahead touchdown in OT. “I knew at one moment I’d be able to make a big play off of it, and it just happened to be overtime.”
The defense then doubled down, with nose guard Sean Wilson and company totally sealing the middle on East Carolina’s final play, giving Pinnix absolutely no chance.
“They got under center and got in a power football formation, and that guy (Pinnix) was sitting about seven yards deep and they ran it,” Fritz said. “We did a good job of gang-tackling and keeping him out of the end zone. It looked like four or five guys were in on the tackle.”
The Wave saved its worst mistakes for the end of the game, committing three turnovers in the second half and a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty as East Carolina rallied to tie the score on a touchdown pass with 36 seconds left.
Along the way, the Pirates converted a fourth down with a diving shoestring catch by wideout Jimmy Williams to move the ball inside the Tulane, setting up a tying scoring toss two plays later.
“It was tough,” Fritz said. “Thank goodness we’re going to be learn from them off a win. It’s something we don’t need to do because all of them were really unforced.”
Before then, it looked like the fake punt would be the decisive moment.
Glen Cuiellette, who started at quarterback in 10 games last season but fell to fourth string at the beginning of preseason drills this year, sneaked on the field instead of punter Zach Block, took a punt snap and threw a strike to receiver Darnell Mooney on fourth-and-11 from the Pirates’ 40 late in the third quarter.
No one saw it coming, and the surprising twist gave the Green Wave the boost it needed to end a frustrating four-game losing streak. Hilliard then cruised in untouched for a 26-yard touchdown as Tulane went ahead 24-14.
The Wave held on — barely. East Carolina had the ball inside the Tulane 10 three times in the fourth quarter but managed a combined 3 points on the first two before getting the tying score on the third.
Until the fake punt, both teams were spinning their wheels and appeared headed for a scoreless quarter, which would have been East Carolina’s first since the opening quarter of its season opener against James Madison.
The defensively challenged Pirates, last in the nation in scoring and total defense, had come up with two stops after the break and appeared to have their third when Mooney had a third-down pass glance off his hands.
Tulane had held firm on three consecutive possessions against an offense that had set a school record with 54 completions in 72 attempts against Houston last Saturday.
Finally, Tulane made something happen. Cuiellette, who had not thrown a pass since the 2016 finale against Connecticut, was on the money on the fake punt.
Mooney was about a foot shy of the first down when he caught it near the sideline, but he pushed forward just enough to move the chains.
There was nothing close about Hilliard’s touchdown run two plays later, as he found a gaping hole for a touchdown with 36 seconds left in the quarter on his way to a career night. He finished with a career-high 189 yards, including a go-ahead 60-yard touchdown jaunt in the second quarter.
“He didn’t surprise me,” Fritz said. “He’s a workhorse. He’s got a tremendous work ethic. He’s just a ballplayer. He’s what you’re looking for.”
If not for poor defense on third-and-long, Tulane could have won this one more easily.
East Carolina answered the Wave’s two touchdown drives in the first half with immediate touchdowns of its own, converting a third-and-10 early on the first one when cornerback Parry Nickerson provided soft coverage and another third-and-10 early on the second one when backup cornerback Thakarius Keyes never turned around to prevent a 28-yard reception down the sideline.
Those were rare exceptions. Cornerback Donnie Lewis, picked on in early games, broke up six passes before the end of the third quarter, repeatedly running stride for stride with East Carolina’s receivers.
Nickerson made a leaping interception of a deep post on the first play after the Pirates intercepted a tipped Banks pass in the third quarter. He got up and waved his fingers at the East Carolina sideline, warning them not to test him again.
Then the Wave got uncharacteristically careless. Banks fumbled when pulling the ball from Hilliard’s chest, and East Carolina recovered at the Tulane 15, setting up a field goal that pulled the Pirates within 24-17. Banks then threw an interception while on the run from his own 10, handing the ball to the Pirates at the Tulane 34.
East Carolina could not capitalize. Safety Taris Shenall broke up a pass near the sideline on fourth-and-2 from the Tulane 5, preserving the lead.
Banks then got the Wave out of trouble with a strike to receiver Terren Encalade down the sideline for 35 yards on third down from the Tulane 9.
Tulane could not come up with one more stop in regulation after an unsportsmanlike penalty on guard Dominique Briggs sabotaged the drive as the Wave tried to run out the clock.
The stop came in overtime, allowing everyone to celebrate for the first time since a 62-28 trouncing of Tulsa on Oct. 7 that seemed even longer ago than that.
“It meant a lot,” I came to the team and (linebacker) Rae Juan (Marbley) came to the team and we told them just do us a favor and give it all that you’ve got, each and every play and we’ll be fine,” Hilliard said. “We came out and did that.”
It just took them a little longer than they expected.
“We’ve gotten on the short side of these games,” Fritz said. “I’m just glad we came out on the good side of the ledger. We got a W, and we needed that. It will get the kids believing a little more.”