GREENVILLE Clifford James Wilson changed
the course of East Carolina football history for the better on Saturday.
The Pirates had never beaten Southern Miss in a Conference USA football
game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
(Photo: ECU SID)
ECU was 2-15 all-time against the Golden Eagles on their home turf with
the last win coming in 1994 before the Pirates joined C-USA in 1997.
"They've really owned us," said Pirate
defensive lineman Linval Joseph, who had his own special moment with a
1-yard touchdown run.
There have been some close games but
Southern Miss always seemed to have what it took to get a win in
Greenville. The Pirates were 5-0 in 1999 when the Golden Eagles came to
town and won, 39-22.
lost to Southern Miss 28-21 in 2007
after leading 21-14.
Other encounters weren't as close, like
33-7 Pirate loss at home in 2005
38-21 setback in 2003.
"Southern Miss has always had it in for
us," Wilson said.
When Southern Miss scored with 7:35
remaining to tie the score at 20 on Saturday, some of the Pirate
faithful among a crowd of 43,006 might have had the feeling that they
had seen this movie before the one where the bad guys in black hats
ambush the good guys and ride into the sunset with the gold shipment.
"They have been our Achilles heel,"
said ECU coach Skip Holtz. "They have been our nemesis."
The Golden Eagles were just a
conversion kick away from taking the lead in the showdown for the
Conference USA East Division title when Wilson, better known as C.J.,
made his history-changing move.
"It was a great call by coach, you
know," Wilson said. "I saw the gap open all night. They were leaving the
inside gap open. It was just great timing. Jay Ross got a good push and
I shot the gap. He (Southern Miss kicker Daniel Hrapmann) was kicking
low all day.
"It hit me right in the chest. It
didn't hit my hand. It hit me right in the chest. I saw the ball rolling
and I pushed the kicker out of the way so he couldn't fall on it. It
just fell in my hands and I was off to the races. I felt all my
teammates surrounding me and I just knew I had it."
Wilson, the C-USA preseason defensive
player of the year, showed the foot speed that has made him popular with
"That's one thing I was blessed with,
from God, is being pretty fast," Wilson said of the surprising wheels.
"C.J. is always telling me he runs 4.5
seconds for 40 yards," said ECU senior running back Dominique Lindsay,
who ran 20 times for 98 yards. "He might not have done a 4.5 but it was
fast enough and that's all that counts. As long as you're faster than
the man behind you to get to the end zone.
"That was a very big play. I mean big
time players make big plays in big situations."
Wilson played as a true freshman in
2006. Holtz has developed an admiration for the young man from Belhaven.
"C.J. is a very talented player," Holtz
said. "As a senior, to step up in a game like that. For him to take off
running I couldn't remember who tried to grab (the ball) first, scoop
it first. It kind of fell and the ball squirted out. All I kept yelling
was 'Scoop and score, scoop and score.' When he got it, he got some
great blocks and then turned and got himself in the end zone. ...
"C.J. is a special young man. He's
already graduated. He has his degree in hand. He's just a class act, a
class young man, very involved in the church, very religious young man.
I just have the world of respect for him as a person. As a player, he's
very talented. It was great to see him step up."
As Wilson sprinted across the
Dowdy-Ficklen turf, the momentum of the game changed, the Pirates moved
into position to seize the division title and the course of program
history was altered.
Instead of the Pirates trailing 21-20
if the Golden Eagles had been able to execute a routine conversion kick,
ECU took a 22-20 lead as Wilson's return was worth two points. The
eventually prevailed, 25-20.
"It's momentum," Holtz said. "There's
no doubt. In a big game like this, when you're going toe to toe, shoe to
shoe, like a heavyweight fight, momentum is going to go back and forth.
You've always got to take the mindset that somebody is going to make a
play and it's coming back our way.
"You've gotta believe. You can't
flinch. You can't panic. You've just gotta believe. That's where all
that hard work and all that togetherness comes from in the plan. It's a
huge emotional swing for the defense, for the offense, for the
"Look at the sideline when he's running
that thing back. When you look at that sideline jumping up and down, you
can see kind of the shot of energy it put into this football team."
At a team meeting on Friday, Holtz had
the seniors speak as they returned from Thanksgiving.
"We all said we were thankful for the
chance to play one of the best teams in the East to close it out,"
Seniors had some big contributions.
Patrick Pinkney completed 25 of 41 passes for 269 yards. Ben Hartman
made every kick he attempted for 11 points, including field goals of 49,
18 and 47 yards.
Wilson finally put a happy ending on a
key episode of the series that the Golden Eagles have dominated in
Greenville. It was Senior Day but all of the seniors knew it wouldn't be
much of an occasion if the Pirates didn't get to play one more game at
home, which they will next Saturday at noon against Houston for the
won the league title game at Tulsa
last season, 27-24.
"That's playing for all the marbles,"
Wilson said. "Coach Holtz told us before the game, 'We've been there
before. Let's go out there. We're not going to defend the championship.
We're going to take it."