GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Skip Holtz wasn't shy about celebrating this one.
Seconds after East Carolina had beaten Houston (No. 21 BCS, No. 18 AP) 38-32 for its second straight Conference USA championship Saturday, the coach extended both arms in the air with a beaming smile as he and his players spilled onto the field. Moments later, Holtz had skipped all the way to the opposite sideline and was pumping his fists to the rest of the home-stadium crowd.
Then, with the trophy and microphone in hand, Holtz invited fans to join the on-field party.
"Pretty awesome experience," Holtz said of the thousands of fans who took him up on the invitation. "I've got some mental pictures that I'll go to my grave with, standing down there just seeing the people in the stands and the student section and the electricity."
No question, Holtz and his Pirates (9-4) won't soon forget the first C-USA championship game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The defense hung in against a powerful Houston offense by forcing four turnovers. The offense provided enough scoring punch and chain-moving plays to keep the Cougars (10-3) fighting the entire way against a team they had blown out here last year.
When it was over, East Carolina had become the first to win consecutive C-USA titles since the league went to divisional play in 2005. The Pirates, who won last year's title game at Tulsa, also earned a return trip to the Liberty Bowl.
"From the beginning, they haven't set out to defend a conference championship," Holtz said. "They've set out to win one. It wasn't enough just to say we won one last year."
Dominique Lindsay and Giavanni Ruffin each ran for two touchdowns, while game MVP Dwayne Harris had nine catches for 123 yards and a 22-yard touchdown catch. Harris also had a 69-yard kickoff return that set up East Carolina's first touchdown.
Van Eskridge had two interceptions, including the game-clinching grab of a deflected ball in the end zone with 42 seconds left. He was part of a bend-but-don't-break defense that took advantage of every miscue.
And there were plenty.
Case Keenum completed 56 of 75 passes for title game-record 527 yards and five touchdowns, while James Cleveland had 19 catches for 241 yards and three scores. But Keenum threw three interceptions, the first coming in the end zone that East Carolina ultimately converted into Ruffin's second-quarter TD run. On the second, Eskridge picked off a pass over the middle and returned it 30 yards to set up Lindsay's score for a 31-19 lead early in the fourth.
Houston also lost a fumble that East Carolina converted into a field goal, while Matt Hogan missed two extra-point attempts and had a third blocked late in the game.
Finally, after the Cougars defense stopped Lindsay on a fourth-and-1 to get the ball back with 1:47 to play, Keenum lofted a ball deep for L.J. Castile in the end zone that bounced off the shoulder pad of defender Travis Simmons and ricocheted to Eskridge.
"We like having the ball in our hands with a chance to win it," Keenum said. "We've got guys that can make plays downfield. They made more plays than we did."
It was a familiar finish for Eskridge, who also had two interceptions in last year's C-USA title game -- including one on the final defensive play.
"We knew they were going to get some plays on us," Eskridge said. "We just tried to focus on keeping everything inside and up front and make sure we tackled well in space."
Last year, the Cougars left East Carolina's defense gasping for air in a 41-24 win. Keenum threw for 399 yards and three touchdowns in that game, but East Carolina had won seven straight home games against league opponents since, including last week's win against Southern Miss that clinched the division title and homefield advantage for Saturday's game.
Holtz had said his offense would have to do its part to help the defense. Patrick Pinkney threw for 262 yards with no turnovers, Lindsay ran for 75 yards and Ruffin ran for 55 yards.
East Carolina got the clinching score when Ruffin made a brilliant scoring run, patiently waiting for the hole to develop before sprinting free for a 20-yard run that made it 38-26 with 6:39 to play. Keenum connected with Cleveland on the next drive to cut the deficit to 38-32 with 3:24 to play, but couldn't get the Cougars back to the end zone again.
"Our guys didn't quit," Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We came back and had a chance at the end to make a play. In a championship game, you can't turn the ball over."