TULSA , Okla. (AP) - Ben Hartman kicked a 36-yard field goal with 1:43 remaining, and East Carolina took advantage of seven turnovers to beat Tulsa 27-24 Saturday in the Conference USA championship game for its first league title in 32 years. The Pirates (9-4), who made a splash early this season with back-to-back upsets of Top 25 teams Virginia Tech and West Virginia, earned a berth in the Liberty Bowl. East Carolina used the league's best defense to create havoc for David Johnson, the nation's top-rated passer. Johnson threw a career-high five interceptions, including one that was returned 72 yards for a touchdown by Travis Simmons, and also fumbled. Van Eskridge sealed the win with 63 seconds left when he picked off a pass intended for top receiver Brennan Marion, who had crumpled to the turf after apparently injuring his right knee. It was Eskridge's second interception of the game. East Carolina's Norman Whitley ran for 104 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown right up the middle, and Patrick Pinkney threw for 122 yards and a score.
Most importantly, Pinkney protected the ball all game long and didn't turn it over once to guide the Pirates to their first title since the 1976 Southern Conference championship, when his father was a star defensive back. It was a completely different story for Johnson, who had thrown only 13 interceptions through Tulsa 's first 12 games. He threw an interception on the first play of the game as the Golden Hurricane (10-3) came out going for the long ball. It was a sign of things to come. East Carolina scored its first 24 points off of Golden Hurricane turnovers, then chewed up more than 7 minutes on a 12-play, 63-yard drive to set up Hartman for the game-winner. Johnson finished with 195 yards on 23-for-42 passing.
It was only the third time this season he was held below 200 yards passing. His only touchdown pass was an 8-yarder to Jake Collums that tied the game at 24 with 8:57 left, before East Carolina's final march Pinkney followed Johnson's interception on the first play of the game by driving the Pirates 83 yards and throwing a 13-yard touchdown pass to fullback Kevin Gidrey off of play action. The lead grew to 14-0 when Simmons picked off another of Johnson's passes and returned it down the left sideline for a score. It was the first time all season that Johnson threw interceptions on consecutive drives. Tarrion Adams had a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs in a string of 17 straight points for the Golden Hurricane before Hartman tied it with his school record 18th field goal of the season, a 32-yarder. And he still had one left. Tulsa , which leads the nation with a 579-yard average, was held to 399 yards.
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