East Carolina has every reason to dwell on last year’s loss to Temple. It was the Owls who derailed the Pirates’ shot at a major bowl bid.
For this year’s sequel in Greenville on Thursday night, the roles are reversed. Temple is off to a 6-0 start and is ranked No. 22 in the AP top 25. East Carolina (4-3) isn’t using last year as motivation and coach Ruffin McNeill hasn’t talked to his players about the implications of this game in the American Athletic Conference race.
“Not one second, not one syllable, not one word,” McNeill said. “The reason we need (a win this week) is because it’s the next game. That’s the motivation. Our thought process isn’t going to change. Our biggest focus is having a great practice tonight. We know we have a great opponent in Temple. They’re a great team. They’re not winning by luck.”
Last season, it was ECU that was ranked No. 21 and had a 6-1 record before a 20-10 loss at Temple on Nov. 1. The Pirates ended up losing four of their last six games and in the Birmingham Bowl instead of one of the “New Year’s Six” bowl games.
“They beat us last year. It wasn’t luck. They did a good job,” McNeill said.
We know we have a great opponent in Temple. They’re a great team. They’re not winning by luck.
ECU coach Ruffin McNeill
This year, the Owls have their sights set on a conference championship and the guaranteed spot in a major bowl game that goes to the highest ranked “Group of 5” champion. ECU, at 2-1 in the American, is one game behind Temple (3-0 in conference play) in the East Division. With a favorable schedule down the stretch, ECU can take control of the division race with a payback win over the Owls on Thursday night at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Temple stifled ECU’s high-octane offense last year in a wet and soggy game, holding the Pirates to a season-low 10 points and forcing five fumbles. ECU will rely on the quarterback combination of Blake Kemp and James Summers to score against a stellar Temple defense that’s giving up only 14.7 points per game.
The Owls are winning games using an old-school formula of an airtight defense combined with ground-and-pound offense. Temple coach Matt Rhule, a former New York Giants offensive line coach, fields a punishing 4-3 defense that is the best in the AAC. Running back Thomas Jahad leads the league in rushing with 756 yards.
14.7 Points per game Temple’s defense is giving up this season
“His staff has a great philosophy,” McNeill said. “Matt and I talk a lot during the head coaches deals and he has a staff that recruits well. They are in a definite ascending mode.”
With star senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich patrolling the field, the Owls enter the matchup ranked No. 1 in the AAC in scoring defense, total defense (295.5 yards per game) and rushing defense (91.7 ypg), while ranking second in pass defense (203.8 ypg).
“They’re well coached and they play really fast and they play really hard,” ECU offensive coordinator Dave Nichol said. “They get a lot of effort sacks and they have a lot of good pass rushers. They’re kind of similar to BYU where they get mad if they let up a yard. That’s what you want as a coach.”
The Pirates will counter with an offense that is ranked seventh in the AAC (32.1 ppg), but has seen a spike in production the last four games due to the return of wide receiver Trevon Brown and the implementation of the two-quarterback system.
Kemp, who has started all but one game for the Pirates this year, said the key is to avoid long third-down situations where the Temple pass rush can pin its ears back and attack.
“The biggest thing is just keeping us out of third-and-longs,” Kemp said. “… That’s what makes it hard. When its third-and-15 there’s not a lot of things coach Nichol can do to help us, but when it’s third-and-2 we can do anything. We just have to stay out of those bad situations and continue to run the offense.”