It was right there for the taking for the beleaguered Cougars and what was supposed to be the strength of the team, fifth-year junior quarterback Jaren Hall and the star-studded offense.

Taking over at their 9-yard line with just under four minutes remaining and the game with the upstart ECU Pirates tied, BYU had a chance to exorcise its October demons and keep its fading bowl hopes alive.

Then came another nightmare in a month that has been full of them.

“It just came down to who had the ball at the end and who had a chance to kick the field goal to win.” — BYU football coach Kalani Sitake.

The Cougars posted a three-and-out when they absolutely, positively needed a drive in perhaps the most important possession of the disappointing season, and gave ECU and experienced quarterback Holton Ahlers the ball back at the ECU 32.

Ryan Rehkow’s punt came after a 5-yard penalty for having too many players on the field when BYU could ill afford the generosity.

Ten plays later, after the Cougars were rightfully flagged for defensive pass interference to keep ECU’s drive alive, freshman kicker Andrew Conrad booted a 33-yard field goal as time expired to give the visitors a 27-24 win in front of 55,525 less-than-thrilled fans at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

“Tough game, back and forth, and they earned the win,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “They played a great game. I was really proud of our guys.

“Compared to last week, I thought we played a lot better, but I think everything is looking at the result of the game, more than anything.”

And now the Cougars are looking at their first non-bowl season since that 4-9 disaster in 2017, Sitake’s second year. They will have to win at least two of their remaining three games (Boise State, Utah Tech, Stanford), and the Boise State and Stanford games are on the road against teams currently playing well.

BYU (4-5) is obviously not playing well, although Friday’s three-point loss to a now 6-3 Pirates team still apparently angry about not getting a Big 12 invitation like BYU and last week’s victim, UCF, did not seem as disastrous as last week’s loss at Liberty.

“It just came down to who had the ball at the end and who had a chance to kick the field goal to win,” Sitake said.

The successful kick, a line drive from the middle of the field, came after Conrad had missed a 42-yarder with about 10 minutes remaining.

After that miss, the Cougars had seemingly moved the ball deep into ECU territory on a lengthy Hall run on third and three.

However, right tackle Kingsley Suamataia was flagged for holding well behind the play — the flag came from the linesman for the American Athletic Conference (AAC) crew on the ECU sidelines — and all but thwarted the Cougars’ momentum.

Brayden Cosper’s 12-yard catch on third and 13 got BYU to the 44, but Hall was stuffed on fourth and 1. The Cougars were 0 for 2 on fourth down and are now five for 20 on fourth down this season.

“It seems like third and short and fourth and short is our nemesis right now,” Sitake acknowledged. “And if that is the case, and looking at analytics and all that stuff, if we are not able to convert those, we just can’t keep going for it on fourth down all the time. And that is my job as a head coach. I make those decisions.”

That wasn’t the worst misfire on fourth down, however.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, BYU had driven to the ECU 12, then went for it on fourth and 2 instead of take the easy field goal and the probable 27-24 lead.

Backup running back Miles Davis was stuffed for no gain.

“Yeah, now in hindsight, looking back at it, of course (a field goal might have been the right decision),” Sitake said. “…That is my fault. I just felt like we could get that. I felt like there was some good momentum. … Yeah, that is something that I could have done differently and better as a head coach in that decision.”

Asked if he was disappointed to not get the ball there, or in that situation late in the game, BYU’s best player, receiver Puka Nacua, brushed off the question by saying sometimes it is his job to draw defenders to him so other guys can make plays.

On the ill-fated possession that started at the ECU 9, running back Lopini Katoa — who had a season-high 116 yards on 20 carries in relief of Chris Brooks (hamstring) — said he looked around the huddle and sensed that something big was going to happen with the season pretty much hanging in the balance.

“I felt that everybody wanted to make the play and get it done,” Katoa said. “It just didn’t happen tonight.”

Credit the BYU defense, which performed better than it did last week in that 41-14 loss to Liberty, for giving the Cougar offense another chance after the holding penalty.

ECU drove from the BYU 44 to the 9, but the Cougars stuffed back-to-back running plays inside their 10 to give the ball back to Hall and company.

However, Hall’s third and two pass to tight end Masen Wake was off target and dropped, and the Cougars had to punt with just under three minutes left.

It appeared that the defense was going to come up with another big stop and force overtime, but Kaleb Hayes grabbed Isaiah Winstead on fourth and eight when he had help from safety Talan Alfrey, and the flags flew.

After a few short runs, Conrad made the game-winner and ECU players ran all over the field in celebration as the crowd booed.

“Obviously it is supposed to hurt, and the struggles and adversities are a tough thing,” Sitake said. “But, proud of our players and how hard they played. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get the win, but love these guys, and love their attitude and I thought they played really hard.”

Five penalties for 50 yards hurt, as did not having key defenders such as linebacker Payton Wilgar, Max Tooley, Lorenzo Fauatea and Malik Moore, the latter of whom is out for the season with a wrist injury.

“Nobody is going to feel sorry for us and our injured players,” Sitake said. “… East Carolina is a really good team. … They were up for the challenge.”

And BYU wasn’t, which has been one of the stories of the season. The Cougars have lost that “it factor” that carried them to the win over Baylor, which seems like oh, so long ago.

“This (losing streak) has brought us closer as a team,” said defensive end Tyler Batty. “… There is not a single quitter on this team.”

After a 17-17 halftime tie, the Cougars took a 24-17 lead with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to open the second half; BYU won the coin toss for just the second time this season and deferred to the second half.

However, ECU quickly answered with a six-play, 75-yard drive to knot the score at 24-24.

The Cougars, three-point favorites, stayed in the game by unleashing a running attack not seen since early September, even though starter and leading ball-carrier Brooks was out.

The Cougars rushed for 244 yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry, and held the ball for nearly 34 minutes, but it wasn’t enough. BYU finished with 388 yards, while ECU had 424.

The Pirates’ Keaton Mitchell carried the ball 21 times for 176 yards and a touchdown, and Ahlers was 15 of 22 for 197 yards and a passer rating of 143.4.

BYU’s Hall was just OK, completing 18 of 25 passes for 144 yards and two scores. He did the most damage with his feet, running for 60 yards on eight carries. But it was the one called back by the hold that BYU fans will remember the most.

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Of the P.I. call on Hayes that led to the game-winning field goal, Sitake said he didn’t see it on replay and couldn’t comment, but noted that a few plays before that an ECU receiver “disrupted our corner” trying to make a pick — it was Hayes — and nothing was called.

BYU’s defense, which gave up 644 yards to Arkansas and 547 to Liberty, still struggles to get outside contain and put pressure on opposing passers, but tackled significantly better and kept the Cougars in the game with Sitake having taken over play-calling duties from Ilaisa Tuiaki two weeks ago.

“I think overall, we improved from last week, especially,” Batty said.

After getting thrashed in the final three quarters last week at Liberty, BYU’s defense actually came up with a three-and-out on ECU’s first possession, thanks to a low snap on first down that resulted in a 10-yard loss.

The Cougars drove inside the ECU on their first possession, but the drive stalled and Jake Oldroyd was called on to attempt his first field goal since September. He made the 36-yarder, BYU’s first field goal since the Utah State game, and the Cougars had an early 3-0 lead.

BYU’s Chaz Ah You, who made his first start of the 2022 season, suffered a lower leg injury on the Pirates’ second possession and did not return. Six plays later, Mitchell ran untouched up the middle to give ECU a 7-3 lead.

East Carolina shot itself in the foot three times in the first quarter, and all three proved costly. A roughing the passer penalty on a third-and-long gave the Cougars life and set up the Oldroyd field goal.

They dropped an easy pass on third and two at midfield and then punted the ball away on their third possession. Then they jumped offsides on a third-and-three to give BYU a first down after Hall was strip-sacked and ECU recovered.

The Cougars scored a touchdown on that possession, with Katoa twice posting 24-yard runs, the second for the score with 12:56 left in the second quarter to give BYU a 10-7 lead. 

Backup defensive back Carter Krupp saved BYU a touchdown on ECU’s next possession, chasing down Jsi Hatfield after a 51-yard reception in which several of Krupp’s teammates missed tackles on the speedy receiver. Krupp suffered a lower body injury with 11:14 left in the game and did not return.

Conrad’s 23-yard field goal knotted it at 10 after BYU’s defense stiffened inside its five.

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Nacua somehow got wide open in the end zone and made a sliding catch for a 30-yard score to give the Cougars a 17-10 lead with six minutes left in the first half.

Mitchell’s 35-yard run moved the Pirates quickly down the field, however, and Ahlers’ 1-yard run with 2:42 left in the half tied it at 17-all.

The Cougars took over at their 18, but went conservative and didn’t pick up a first down, perhaps a costly decision in a game where every possession meant a lot. Rehkow’s 70-yard punt pinned ECU at the 2 and the Pirates ran out the clock.

East Carolina had 235 yards in the first half, to 208 for BYU. The Cougars had just 63 passing yards in the first half, but Hall picked up 43 yards on three carries to punish the Pirates for some constant blitzing.

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