The East Carolina University (3-2, 0-1 AAC) football team will look to push its record to 4-2 on the season for the first time since 2013 on Thursday night against Temple University (3-1, 0-0 AAC). Playing inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, North Carolina, the Pirates and Owls will be broadcast in prime time on ESPN.
“The spotlight is on our institution and our program,” head coach Mike Houston said. “I think you will see our student body rally around this. We need them. We want the Boneyard packed on Thursday night. It’s time for all of us to come together and support our football program.”
The Pirates are returning home to their fans from Norfolk, Virginia where they defeated Old Dominion University 24-21 last Saturday. In a game impacted so much by both team’s defensive units, sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers and his receivers finally found the long ball, hooking up for three plays longer than 20 yards.
For the Owls of Temple, they routed the Georgia Institute of Technology by a score of 24-2, allowing just 305 yards of total offense and forcing six punts. After yielding just 174 passing yards last week, Temple has not allowed more than 190 yards through the air this season.
While they have struggled at times to contain the run, allowing opponents to rush for a combined 530 yards in four contests, the Owls still possess the 19th best defensive unit in the FBS. Much of that success has come in two important areas, ones that tend to be staples of good defensive teams.
On third downs, the Owls’ defense has held opponents to a 25% conversion rate (17-for-68), good enough for third best in the FBS while at the same time posting the second best red-zone defense in the country.
“When you look at their roster, they’re older. They’re a big, very experienced football team,” Houston said. “A lot of skill and athleticism at the standup positions. It’s a program that’s consistently won at the highest level of anyone in our league over the history of the American Athletic Conference and one that’s been very good the past several years.”
The Owls made their last bowl appearance in 2015 in the Boca Raton Bowl and finished that season 10-4. Interestingly enough, that was the last time Temple began a campaign 3-1, a mark which they currently hold this season. With a new coach at the helm in Rod Carey, the Owls have returned one of the oldest and most experienced rosters in the FBS.
Fourteen starters return from last season, seven on both sides of the football. In total, Temple sports 50 players with at least three years of collegiate experience, including 25 redshirt juniors and six graduate-level players. That experience shows up the best at the linebacker positions, spots held down by seniors Sam Franklin, and Shaun Bradley and graduate student Chapelle Russell.
In accordance with tradition at Temple, single digit numbers are only awarded to the toughest and hardest working players on the team. The trio mentioned above all don single digits while redshirt junior defensive end Quincy Roche is also a member of that elite club.
“When you think of Temple football, and this is my first time facing them, when you think of them traditionally that’s what you think of (physicality),” Houston said. “They’re very much a blue collar team. That’s very much what we want to be. So that’ll be a great match-up there.”
While Temple’s linebacker corps is very much the anchor of the defense, the play of senior safety Benny Walls has been perhaps the most impactful, especially of late. In last week’s victory, Walls was all over the place, recording an interception with a 65-yard return and a fumble recovery with a 74-yard touchdown return. For his efforts, Walls was named the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player-of-the-Week.
Temple’s impactful play is not limited to the defensive side of the football, however. In four games thus far, the Owls’ offense is scoring an average of 30.5 points per game. Temple’s 292.3 yards through the air per contest is 25th best in the FBS while their 141 yards on the ground is ninth in the nation.
In three of the four games this season, the Owls have rushed for at least 150 yards and passed for at least 250 behind a highly touted offensive line. Made up of two sophomores, two redshirt juniors and a graduate student, Temple’s o-line has allowed just 16 quarterback pressures in 2019, placing them second in the nation for that category.
With time in the pocket and holes to run through, it’s no wonder why Temple’s offense has been so successful up until this point. On the season, redshirt junior quarterback Anthony Russo ranks third in the American Athletic Conference with 1,071 passing yards and is 20th in the FBS with 10 touchdowns through the air.
“Big, physical offense that can run the ball very well,” Houston said. “Certainly, they can throw the ball and defend the pass well also. Maybe the most dynamic return man in the league with (senior wide receiver Isaiah) Wright. They’re just a complete football team that looks like a veteran, older group. It’s what you want to look like.”
Wright, who Houston mentions by name, is indeed one of the most versatile players in college football. He shows up in the statistics sheet in the rushing column, punt and kick return columns and receiving column. With 201 yards on 22 catches, Wright ranks second on the team in that category but currently paces the team with three receiving touchdowns and better than 120 all-purpose yards per contest.
In fact, Temple is one of only two FBS programs with three players averaging at least 100 all-purpose yards on offense. Besides Wright, freshman running back Re’Mahn Davis (109 yards) and redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jadan Blue (100.5 yards) have also eclipsed that mark.
Week six of the season presents somewhat of a challenge for both programs. Coming off Saturday games, each team will have just four days of down time before suiting up again on Thursday in Greenville.
“Certainly, during a compressed week, you’ve got to be smart with how you go out and prepare, so this week’s practice schedule will be a little bit different than it has been on a normal game week,” Houston said. “I think we’ll have a group that takes the field on Thursday night that will be excited to play, and they’ll be excited about the opportunity.”
Slated to be without junior running Darius Pinnix Jr. for the fourth straight game, the Pirates will likely continue using a rush-by-committee approach that has worked with mixed results in the starters’ absence. Last week against Old Dominion, ECU rushed for 107 yards as a team, with freshman Demetrius Mauney leading the way.
On the passing end of the spectrum, Ahlers seemed to be more in-sync with his receivers but racked up just 203 yards through the air with two interceptions. Nevertheless, the Pirates left Norfolk with the win, snapping a 10-game road losing streak and establishing a winning record ahead of Thursday.
“Coming off that momentum is huge for us, it’s a short week. It’s a lot of smiles around campus and the facility. We’re just excited for Thursday,” sophomore wide receiver Blake Proehl said.
If the history books hold any stock, they would suggest Temple holds the advantage on the road. In the last five games between these two programs, the Owls have outscored ECU 164-50, dating back to 2014. That includes a 49-6 Temple thrashing of the Pirates last October, a game in which the Owls scored 28 straight points at one time.
Despite all the bad in past seasons for the Pirates, there is something to be said about a team pulling off a gusty road win like they did last Saturday. Having always played well at home, Houston and his staff will attempt to extract the best from their players in the national spotlight.
“They knew (the players) going into the game, being 2-2, to go into this game 3-2 was something significant to them,” Houston said. It may not be a huge achievement to someone outside of our locker room, but to these kids, having that success is important. I think that was a motivating factor last week and it’s something giving them confidence this week.”
Kickoff between the Pirates and Owls on Thursday night is scheduled for 8 p.m. inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.