The East Carolina University (3-3, 0-2 AAC) football team dropped its first conference home game of the season on Thursday night, losing to Temple University (4-1, 1-0 AAC) by a score of 27-17.
Heading into ECU’s first and only Thursday night game of the season, the Pirates knew they would be tasked with facing a stout defense. Ranked 19th in the FBS in total defense, the Owls rolled into Greenville, North Carolina allowing just 283 yards per game to opposing offenses.
Helping to account for that number was Temple’s second best red-zone defense in the nation and its third best third down defense in the country. Holding opponents to a 25% success rate on third down and allowing only 151 yards through the air had propelled the Owls to a 3-1 record heading into the prime time showdown with ECU.
Banking on his defense to get a stop, first-year Temple head coach Rod Carey elected to defer after winning the opening coin toss. In response to that, however, the Pirates put together what would ultimately be its best drive of the contest until late in the fourth quarter.
On the back of a number of quick bubble-screen passes and slants, the ECU offense chipped its way toward Temple territory. Eventually passing the 50-yard line, the Pirates racked up 38 rushing yards as a team, including 18 by sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers on an option play.
The money play, however, came on a 14-yard touchdown pass from the left hand of Ahlers a handful of plays later, allowing the Pirates to take a quick 7-0 lead. On what was one of Ahlers’ best thrown balls of the season thus far, he found freshman wide receiver CJ Johnson behind a number of defensive backs, giving the rookie his first collegiate score.
“Loved the way we started the ball game, the way we’re competing,” head coach Mike Houston said after the game. “Stadium was electric, I mean it was everything that I came to East Carolina for.”
After racking up 75 yards of offense on the opening drive and spanning 90 yards total, the Pirates’ offense struggled to find its footing as Temple’s defense dug-in. On the heels of the team’s 12-play drive, the Pirates managed just 14 plays combinated on the next three possessions, totaling a lackluster 47 yards.
Temple, on the other hand, swung the momentum in with lengthy drives resulting in points on the board. Starting around mid-field on back-to-back drives in the second quarter, the Owls plunged the ball into the endzone on two rushing touchdowns. One each for senior running back Jager Gardner and freshman Re’Mahn Davis, that duo finished the night with over 200 combined rushing yards on 38 attempts.
“That’s what you worry about is that big offensive line and then they got the two really top-notch running backs there,” Houston said. “They have very good skill players on offense, across the board. We control a lot of that, the four and five yards a clip is - you can’t allow that and that’s what got us.”
In total, Temple ended the night with 237 yards on the ground to ECU’s 98 yards, but it was a late passing touchdown that ultimately iced the game for the visiting squad. Already staked to a 17-10 lead late in the third quarter, courtesy of a one-yard touchdown rush by Davis, junior quarterback Anthony Russo found senior wide receiver Isaiah Wright from six yards out, pushing the score to 24-10 after an extra point.
While Temple was able to score 27 points on the evening, the defense can not be faulted for allowing three touchdowns. Without a consistent offensive attack, the Pirates’ defense found themselves on the field for extended amounts of time which played an important factor in the Owls’ success on the ground.
“Fatigue gets you, certainly the depth is a little bit of an issue,” Houston said. “I think that when you start playing some of these teams that have the size they have across the fronts on both sides, that they wear us down a little bit.”
Offensively, that same sentiment can be shared. On the night, Temple’s front seven forced 13 quarterback hurries, sacked Ahlers three times and made eight tackles for a loss of yardage. With that kind of pressure in his face, it’s no wonder why Ahlers struggled for much of the contest.
After his team’s opening drive, Ahlers had booked seven completed passes for 37 yards. By halftime, the sophomore had completed just three additional passes in 14 attempts. In the third quarter alone, a stanza in which Temple possessed the football for almost 11 minutes, Ahlers hooked up only one pass for 23 yards while ECU recorded negative-four yards on the ground in that 15 minutes of action.
“We’ve got to learn how to bow our back and compete when the momentum is dead against us. Learning how to overcome adversity is not easy and it’s something that - I think there are some really bad habits here that we’re breaking,” Houston said. “One of those is hanging our head and feeling sorry ourself and they are not going to do that.”
With 229 passing yards on 19 completions, Ahlers was able to find Johnson in the endzone twice, once late in the fourth quarter to add an extra layer of drama to the game. While Temple would ultimately hold on for a 10-point victory, Ahlers’ late-game effectiveness allowed Johnson to set some career marks.
His eight catches for 100 yards set new career highs for the freshman, giving him 208 total receiving yards on the season.
“I think he’s improving every week, I like his competitiveness,” Houston said of Johnson. “He has high expectations for himself. I like the fact that you can coach him hard and he responds to it, cause he wants to win. I think he’s going to be a really good player for us in time and he’s getting better every week right now.”
Despite showing flashes of having big-play ability, ECU’s offense has struggled to find consistency. Against one of the better defensive units in the conference and the country, that same narrative once again reared its ugly head.
Over 100 yards of Ahlers’ total passing yards came in the fourth quarter with Temple already up multiple scores. Even then, the Pirates’ run game accounted for only 21 yards on 11 rushes in that period as the offense failed to pick a third down conversion in the final quarter.
“Having that edge and that intensity is so critical. If you’re going to compete the way we want to compete and play the style of game - we’re not a tempo, throw it all over the place - we’re a very physical football team, that’s the way we are building this thing,” Houston said. “If we’re going to play that way, we got to keep that edge all the time.”
On Thursday night, in front of a national television audience, ECU often lacked that intensity and edge Houston so often talks about. That, combined with another lackluster effort from the offense, cost the Pirates a potential upset of a solid Temple football team in Greenville.
The Pirates will enter their bye week with a 3-3 record and will not be back in action until Oct. 19. Slated to take on the University of Central Florida in Orlando, the start time has yet to be announced.