Known as one of the giant killers in college football, the Golden Eagles had actually gone 22 straight games against ranked opponents this decade without a victory.
That was until Saturday.
Jeff Kelly threw three touchdown passes and workhorse Derrick Nix rushed for 171 yards in a 39-22 victory over the previously unbeaten Pirates.
Prior to a week off, the Golden Eagles had lost to No. 4 Nebraska and No. 13 Texas A&M in close games.
Southern Mississippi's last win over a ranked team prior to this weekend was in 1990 at No. 13 Alabama.
It was the fourth straight victory by the Golden Eagles (3-2, 2-0 Conference USA) over East Carolina (5-1, 1-1) and the 13th in the last 16 meetings.
"We played about as hard as I thought we could play," East Carolina coach Steve Logan said. "There was no room for error and we made a couple on the offensive side of the ball. We let a chance for victory slip away."
Leo Barnes sealed the victory with a 60-yard interception return with 3:15 left, and Nix added a 19-yard TD run on his career-high 42nd carry.
"I was thinking Liberty Bowl. That was the first thing that came to my mind," Barnes said of his key interception return. "I just read his eyes."
East Carolina, off to its best start in 23 years, was playing at home for the first time since Hurricane Floyd flooded the campus and many portions of eastern North Carolina last month.
The Pirates got off to a quick 15-3 first-quarter lead, but the Golden Eagles then dominated the rest of the game and the clock as Nix gave the worst rushing attack in Conference USA a much-needed boost.
"It just kind of evolved that wa," Bower said of the team's game-plan to run Nix that much. "We wanted to run the football and get back to our old self on offense."
Kelly also was clutch, throwing TD passes of 14, 37 and 24 yards, his second scoring pass to Sherrod Gideon early in the third quarter giving the Golden Eagles a 25-15 lead.
But the Pirates weren't finished just yet. David Garrard threw his third TD pass a 42-yarder to LaMont Chappell on third-and-23 with 12:17 left as East Carolina closed within three.
Garrard then escaped from sure sacks on two different third-down plays late in the game, only to be picked off by Barnes on a fourth-and-3 play near midfield.
"(Garrard) had run around and made some big plays and I think Leo just sat back on that one," Bower said. "That's what happens so many times on a scramble, you get a big play either one way or the other."
Each team owned a quarter in the first half.
A 46-yard punt return by Shawn Mills set up a short field goal by Brant Hanna before the Pirates scored 15 straight points in the opening 10 1/2 minutes.
Jamie Wilson's 68-yard run the longest this season for East Carolina set up his 1-yard TD reception from Garrard.
Mills stepped out of bounds on the ensuing kickoff at the Southern Mississippi 3, backing his team up. Three plays later, Kelly fumbled the ball into the end zone while being taken down by Ty Hunt. Buck Miciotto, trying to save his team a TD, batted the ball out of the back of the end zone as the Pirates went up 9-3.
Six plays after Southern Mississippi's free kick, Garrard make a nifty move in the pocket to avoid the rush and found Arnie Powell on a 44-yard scoring play.
"I just wanted the ball back," Kelly said of the early 12-point deficit. "We were moving the ball pretty well and I just wanted to put some points on the board."
Kelly threw two scoring passes less than 4 1/2 minutes apart midway through the second quarter, his second one a 37-yarder to Todd Pinkston, who has caught at least one TD in six straight games dating to last season's bowl game.
Hanna added another short field goal for a 19-15 halftime lead.
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