TULSA, Okla. -- Skip Holtz got what he considered the best performance he'd ever seen out of East Carolina's offense, then watched as his defense rose to the same level of excellence.
Dominique Lindsay ran for a career-high 172 yards, Darryl Freeney had a career-best 152 yards receiving and East Carolina maintained its lead in Conference USA's East Division with a 44-17 victory over Tulsa on Sunday night.
In a rematch of last season's conference championship game, the Pirates (6-4, 5-1) dominated on offense in the first half and then sealed the game with three defensive touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
"We haven't scored on defense all year, and we've been challenging our players with it, that we've gotten some turnovers and we've got a lot of interceptions but we just haven't done much with it," Holtz said. "We've really been challenging them and they really stepped up."
The Pirates ranked among the top 20 programs in the nation with 44 unconventional scores over the past decade, but had only two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season before the fourth quarter feeding frenzy.
"I just hate that we did that," Tulsa coach Todd Graham said. "It leaves a really, really bad taste in your mouth when you turn the ball over and give up 21 points down the stretch."
Patrick Pinkney threw for 275 yards and two touchdowns, to Lindsay and Freeney. East Carolina is a game ahead of UAB, Southern Miss and Central Florida with two games left. UAB and Southern Miss visit the Pirates to finish the season.
"We've talked about right now with where we are, we control our own destiny. But when you look at it, there's three teams nipping at your heels right now," Holtz said.
"I'm sure Southern Miss, with the tiebreaker series, and UAB are talking about how they control their own destiny, too, because if they win out, they're in the same situation."
Tulsa (4-6, 2-4), which played for the conference title three of the last four years, is in jeopardy of missing out on a bowl after losing five straight.
"Our goal every year is to be the conference champion. You go back, and we've faced a lot of adversity and a lot of bad breaks and all that stuff," Golden Hurricane coach Todd Graham said. "Woulda, shoulda, coulda don't count. But our guys are going to battle their tails off."
Damaris Johnson, the nation's leader in all-purpose yardage, got the Golden Hurricane back in the game after the Pirates had built a 20-point lead in the first half. He returned a kickoff 57 yards and then had catches on back-to-back plays, the second going for 9 yards and a touchdown that brought Tulsa to 23-17 with 4 minutes left in the third quarter.
East Carolina couldn't get its offense going again after amassing 401 yards in the first half, but Emanuel Davis stepped in front of G.J. Kinne's pass to Johnson and cut across the field before weaving his way into the end zone to provide some extra cushion.
Tulsa got the ball to the 7 on its ensuing possession, but Kinne's pass on fourth-and-6 bounced off of nose guard Linval Joseph's helmet and fell incomplete. Levin Neal then picked off another Kinne pass and brought it back 57 yards to put the game away with 2:23 remaining. Defensive tackle Jay Ross added a 49-yard return of Kinne's fumble 46 seconds later.
"It might have been as fine a first half as I've seen us play on offense since I've been here, in five years," Holtz said. "But the defense outscored the offense in the second half."
Kinne finished with 236 yards on 23-for-46 passing with two touchdowns and the two interceptions. Johnson had 14 catches for 135 yards.
"He's impressive on film, but he's really special when you see him live," Holtz said of Johnson. "As quick as he is and how many guys he made miss. He looked like he broke a couple of our guys' ankles with his open-field moves.
"He's quick, he's electric, he's exciting and he's a really special player."
Lindsay and Freeney both surpassed the best performances of their career before the first half was even over. Lindsay had 150 yards on 20 carries while Freeney had seven catches for 146 yards. Both also caught touchdown passes -- Freeney a 37-yarder and Lindsay a 12-yarder -- as the Pirates built a 20-0 lead.
Lindsay had never had more than 144 yards rushing in a game, and Freeney's highest output had been 116 yards. He had only 222 yards in nine games this season before the huge first half.
Tulsa kept it relatively close by forcing the Pirates to settle for three field goal tries, with Ben Hartman connecting from 29 and 37 yards and missing from 48, and scoring on its final possession before halftime on Kinne's 12-yard pass to freshman Ricky Johnson.
Ryan Fitzpatrick also connected on a career-long 51-yard field goal.