After years of being on the other end of controversial officiating calls, the University of Tulsa caught a series of breaks Friday night on its way to a dramatic come-from-behind victory.

Playing its first home game in 341 days, the Hurricane rallied with a late touchdown drive to prevail 34-30 against one-win East Carolina in front of a socially distanced crowd at H.A. Chapman Stadium.

“Those are the type of games that you continue to build your team on,” coach Philip Montgomery said. “We definitely had to battle tonight. I can’t be more proud of our players and our coaches staying together.

“We got 60 minutes to play and it took all 60 minutes, took every second of it.”

With four minutes left, TU (3-1, 3-0 American) trailed by three and had penalties on back-to-back plays to get behind the chains. On fourth-and-10, a pass from Zach Smith was batted down by the defender.

While the Pirates were celebrating what appeared to be the conclusion, a late flag was thrown for pass interference, giving the Hurricane new life.

On the next play, a fumble from TK Wilkerson prompted a review that ultimately determined Wilkerson’s knee was down. On another fourth down, receiver Josh Johnson caught a low pass that led to an additional lengthy review that confirmed the call on the field.

Wilkerson then raced 18 yards to the 1-yard line on the next play, and then he leaped over the offensive line for the touchdown.

“There were so many close calls in there,” Montgomery said. “We’ve been on the other end of that and those are difficult.”

With 29 seconds left, East Carolina (1-4, 1-3) wound up having a final Hail Mary attempt that created more drama but wasn’t caught in the end zone.

A game that was tied went off the rails during the fourth quarter. On three consecutive plays, TU blocked a field goal, had a fumble ruled an incomplete pass and lost a fumble that led to a field goal.

On the following series, the Hurricane twice converted third downs to keep the drive alive. JuanCarlos Santana plucked a catch out of the air, broke several tackles and spun his way into the end zone for a 39-yard score.

Trying to hold onto its lead, TU’s defense couldn’t stop a Pirate attack that was surprisingly efficient. Quarterback Holton Ahlers completed six passes in a row and found Rahjai Harris on fourth-and-goal for a short touchdown to set up the Hurricane’s last series.

Against a heavy underdog, TU struggled to get going. Smith threw an interception on the Hurricane’s first play of the first half and the last play of the second half, and he also was sacked three times before halftime, equaling the total allowed through the first three games.

After the first interception, the Pirates capitalized in a hurry, with Ahlers connecting with slippery receiver Tyler Snead on a third-down touchdown pass. A three-and-out from the TU offense followed, and momentum started to shift the direction of the visiting team.

On back-to-back plays, East Carolina lost fumbles. One was forced by Zaven Collins and recovered by Bryson Powers and the other was forced by Treyvon Reeves and recovered by Allie Green IV.

Between those plays, the Hurricane offense continued to sputter. On fourth down, the pass from Smith to Josh Johnson was dropped.

On the only promising series of the first half, TU advanced to the red zone before a sack on third down resulted in a field goal from Zack Long.

The Pirates, meanwhile, scored on both of their second-quarter possessions. They went 90 yards to the end zone with ease and churned out a six-minute drive that resulted in a long field goal late in the half, leading to the 17-3 deficit.

Adding to the Hurricane’s troubles, Collins departed for the locker room in the first half with what the radio broadcast team described as a toe injury. He returned for the second half but didn't seem close to 100%.

After the dreadful first half, TU awakened in a major way, needing five plays and 93 seconds to produce a touchdown from Keylon Stokes. Back-to-back passes were to Santana, who finished with four catches for 88 yards.

Following a field goal, the Hurricane was clicking again. Two clutch fourth-down conversions included a 13-yard run from Wilkerson for a touchdown to get within three.

With the Pirates pinned deep in their territory because of a misfielded punt, Justin Wright snagged a pass and took it to the 4-yard line. TU netted zero yards on the next three plays and had to settle for a field goal to knot the score.


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Sports Writer

I have covered college football and college basketball for the Tulsa World since 2012. I spend my spare time as an animal rescue volunteer, focusing on spaying and neutering community cats in the Tulsa area. Phone: 918-581-8452