It was Nov. 1, 2014, when East Carolina last played Temple at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The Pirates were ranked No. 21 and had a five-game winning streak that included victories over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg (28-21) and North Carolina at home (70-41).
ECU set a school record with 789 yards of offense against the Tar Heels.
It was 81 degrees when the Pirates took on UNC on Sept. 20. The conditions at Temple were more severe — 46 degrees and rainy, with a biting breeze.
ECU had practiced in much milder weather that week in Greenville and did not have gear for the occasion in Philadelphia.
The Owls won, 20-10, as the Pirates struggled to hold on to the ball and lost five fumbles. ECU had a 428-135 command in total yardage.
The outcome was a turning point in recent history for the program. In the 28 games since that gray day, the Pirates are 10-18, including 3-8 overall this season and 1-6 in the American Athletic Conference.
In the 28 games before the upset at Temple, ECU was 19-9.
The game was also a pivot point for Temple — in the opposite direction. The Owls were 9-20 in the 29 games preceding the 2014 upset of ECU and have gone 19-10 since.
It should be noted that 2014 was the first season for the Pirates in the AAC and that the previous Conference USA schedule is not perceived to be as demanding.
Still, Ruffin McNeill’s coaching tenure never appeared to recover from the costly butterfingers of the last venture to Philly. The rebuilding task looks challenging as ECU heads into a 7:30 p.m. matchup Saturday at Temple (8-3, 6-1).
“In all my coaching experience, I had not been involved in games in the Northeast at that time of year,” the well-traveled Ruff said in retrospect.
The conditions were certainly a factor and there will be a relative chill for ECU to deal with on the pending return trip.
The Pirates that were there in 2014 haven’t forgotten.
Senior center J.T. Boyd, after a 20-15 loss at South Carolina earlier this year in which ECU was plagued by a series of turnovers in the red zone, said that “it reminded me of Temple.”
The Owls can clinch the East Division’s berth in the AAC championship against Navy with a win against ECU.
The Midshipmen’s 66-31 win last week in Greenville assured their shot at the league title as the West rep.
Last look at Navy
First-year Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery offered his perspective on the Navy loss after reviewing film.
“We didn’t play good defense at all that game and I recognize that,” Montgomery said. “I thought that we were beaten up . . . at the point of attack. They laid on us in their front a little bit more than I like to see. We got people to the ball but we didn’t tackle the football very well. My biggest take out of the game is that we only had one or two guys tackle at the level you have to tackle at.
“One of those guys was Ray Tillman, (outside linebacker, 11 tackles, seven assists). . . . He tackled at the level you have to tackle.
“I really thought the game was won on first down for them. Our strategy coming into the game and first half worked really well, first quarter to middle of the second quarter, was to not only use all of our downs effectively but use first down as if it was a third down to try to get as much yards as we possibly could and end up in 2nd-and-1 and 2nd-and-2 and then slow the game down 2nd-and-3, 2nd-and-4. Slow it down to keep our defense on the sideline. We did that. We matched everything that they were doing offensively until we had the incompletion to James Summers on the sideline and we had to kick a field goal. We actually had even stolen a possession by that time. If we had gotten it to 21-7, we would have been looking at a different game. Unfortunately, 17-7 and they came back. We didn’t get to use that stolen possession the way that we should have.
“Offensively, I think Gardner Minshew took some huge strides. Against a team like Navy, he had three bad series. Those three bad series were basically three bad throws and a dropped snap. If we’re going to be a great team, we’ve got to eliminate all those things.
“Unfortunately, we lost some players early in that game that were critical. Losing our kickoff returner was critical, who was also starting at corner that game for us, Chris Love. That was a critical loss with Bobby Fulp already being down. It put some of our guys in some stressful situations but we’ve got to be better than what we played.”
Minshew gets nod
Minshew completed 16 of 25 passes for 238 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in his first start for the Pirates last Saturday.
He threw to Zay Jones for his 388th career reception in the second quarter as Jones broke the career catches record in the Football Bowl Subdivision held by former ECU teammate Justin Hardy, now with the Atlanta Falcons.
Montgomery said Wednesday that he planned to start Minshew at Temple.
“We’re going to go with Gardner,” Montgomery said. “We’ll play with Gardner this week. After one day of work [Tuesday], I feel comfortable saying that.”
Jones needs five catches against the Owls to become the single season FBS record holder.
Practice in general Tuesday
Montgomery spoke in general terms about the Pirates’ practice on Tuesday, generally the heaviest day in a week of preparation.
“We mixed in a lot of young periods where we let young guys compete against each other, whether it would have been the board drills or whether it would have been scrimmaging without tackling is what we like to call it,” Montgomery said. “Everything is real and full speed except we don’t go to the ground. We just kept the energy and juice there.
“Throughout practice, we had a lot of good on good versus each other a few periods apart. One major difference is that we were able to get back to being on the field with good on good versus last week being basically a lot of scout team, a lot of show team for the Navy attack so practice went well.”
Coldest game of the year
The temperature in Philadelphia will be 41 degrees at kickoff, according to the extended forecast, with wind eight miles per hour out of the north-northwest.
That will make it the coldest game this season.
Cold weather has not been synonymous with success at ECU. The Pirates have lost their last five games when the temperature was less than 50 degrees at the outset.
The last win under those circumstances was a 48-28 triumph over Houston at home on Nov. 3, 2012.
A little nip in the air is not a daunting factor for Montgomery, who played at Duke and in the NFL.
“It’s been a little chilly here in Greenville,” said the Pirates coach. “We can’t really prepare for what the weather is going to be like. As a player I kind of liked it when it was 35, 40 degrees once I got over the initial coldness because you’re not dealing with the heat — the fatigue that comes with the heat and sweat.
“We’re practicing at about 5:30 or six o’clock at night, so it has been really cool here as of late. … We had our first really cool-weather practice [Tuesday]. We’re getting another one [Wednesday]. It won’t be the first time we’ve been in some cold weather.”
Montgomery said Adidas has more than adequately equipped the Pirates.
“We’ll definitely provide everything that Adidas gives us as far as leggings,” Montgomery said.. “We have all of it. We even have coats if needed for the sideline. I don’t think it’s going to quite be to that level but since we’ve come under our Adidas contract, we have more than enough stuff for cold weather games even though we don’t play a lot of them. They really did a good job of sending us more stuff than we need. … We have different sets of everything.”
The Pirates had heaters on the sideline at Cincinnati.
“Most likely, we’ll have heaters [at Temple],” Montgomery said. “That’s something we like to have, especially for skill guys. They like to go in, come out, be in the heat so that they don’t get back out there and feel cold.”
Thanksgiving and football is a tradition for Montgomery.
“Over the last however long, I’ve always been practicing just about all the time on Thanksgiving morning,” he said.
Meals were available for the players after a practice Thursday morning. Then players who couldn’t make it home to be with their families could dine with their position coaches or Montgomery.
The Pirates coach can do more than watch the NFL games on Thanksgiving.
“My wife will cook a turkey and I will smoke a turkey,” Montgomery said Wednesday. “I have an old school smoker, not one of those new ones. Some people tell me I need to get a new one. I’ve had it a long time. I like stuff that has history. You don’t part ways with things that have good history. I’ll get up at about 5 a.m. and start smoking a turkey. I’ll try to get that temperature to stay around 175, 180. Somebody could probably teach me a little better way to do it but one of my uncles showed me a long time ago.
“I’ve done it for several Thanksgivings. I’ll cook it for about eight hours or however long is needed before it’s ready. We’ll smoke it. It takes a long time. One of the things you can’t do, which I know after several times — you want to look at that turkey during the smoking process. You can’t do it. It will kill your temperature. Then you’ve got to get your charcoal and wood back to the right temperature and it may add an hour to your cook time. You’ve got to make sure that heat stays right. … In about eight hours, hopefully, we’ll be all set.”
Temple’s current success has been accomplished through recruiting and team building, a process the Pirates also are using.
“What they’ve done, they’ve had recruits to come in and they’ve just kind of filled in the spots,” Montgomery said. “They have a lot of juniors and seniors. You don’t see many freshmen and sophomores. That’s the benefit of good recruiting. Good recruiting isn’t what people think it is. It’s not going out and signing four-star players. You’ve got to go out and sign a certain mindset, a certain fit, a certain belief system. That belief system comes in and they just start working together and working together and working together and more and more and more and more. And then, once that happens, you have a team. I think that’s just what they have.
“They’re not the biggest team on defense but they’re the best defense that the conference has. … They’re not the biggest or fastest on offense but yet they’ve found ways to make plays in critical situations and take care of the football. They’ve got strong, powerful pieces, pieces that I love. Their fullback (Nick Sharga), No. 4, slash tight end. He’s a throwback player. he gives their whole team a different level of toughness because they have to face him every day in practice. That level of toughness that they have — that is the difference in the Temple team now versus Temple of old or the Temple team now and a lot of other people in our conference. They have an overall physical toughness that’s really good to see on tape.”
The Pirates may not be pressed to match every score as they were against Navy.
“We have to finish every drive with a kick, whether that be punt, whether that be field goal or extra point,” Montgomery said in response to keys for the game. “We’ve got to do that. That means don’t turn the ball over, whether it be on downs or whether it be just turning it over. You’ve got to finish it with a kick and you’ve got to feel OK with finishing it with a kick. Punts at some time during this game are not going to be a bad thing.
“We’ve got to stay out of the third and longs. . . . That means first down is going to be critically important for us. They do a good job of rushing with just four at times. They’ve got some guys who can hit you with speed rushes and they’re not as big as some of the other people that we’ve seen but their speed rush is more capable.
“On defense, what we’ve got to do is the exact opposite. When we do get them to third downs and longs — and they’ve been in them, Phillip Walker (quarterback) has just been able to come out of them. Last week, he made some plays on third and longs (31-0 win at Tulane). When we get them to third and longs, we’ve got have enough coverage to stop that intermediate passing game that they have where they’re running gigs and they’re running deep outs and converting 3rd-and-12s and 3rd-and-13s so those two things combined are really big-time keys to victory.
“The last thing, our special teams has to play at the level of their special teams.”
Montgomery was recruiting coaches in December for his staff at ECU last year as he helped Duke prepare for the Pinstripe Bowl.
This December, one focus will be a culling process for prospective players.
“The loss of December last year was critical,” Montgomery said. “We kind of lost a month as a program. Right now, we’re not going to do that. The recruiting part of it is finding out about people. This part of the year is where you get to go out. I’m just checking every person out. I’m checking every single part of it. We’ve got to have great football players. Football has to be really, really important to them. I’m going out to check the personalities to make sure that they’re great people. That’s what we can continue to improve on in this evaluation process. We’ve got a whole staff of people that are out working the entire December toward what we know we have to fix.
“Last year, there was some guessing because you didn’t know quite what the problems were. Now, we know what the problems are. We also know that we have some guys that we have redshirted that are going to be big impacts for us. We didn’t know that last year. Those are things they we do know. … December this year to December last year is completely different. Where we were trying to recruit staff, now we’re working to recruit great football players. The players that we have committed, we’re evaluating them at all times to make sure they’re doing everything that they were supposed to be doing in this process so that when we get to the signing point, we don’t do something that we regret.”
Some members of the coaching staff have multi-year contracts, Montgomery said. Everyone will be evaluated.
“What I’ll do is, Dec. 14-15, we come back and it’s not just staff evaluation, it’s program evaluation,” Montgomery said. “I’ll start with me. The first thing I do, a lot of people don’t understand, is that I critique myself on how I manage every single game and every situation in the game. That’ll take me a couple of days to get through. Then we’ll start evaluating each position. After that position, we’ll build into the entire offense or the entire defense or the entire special teams.
“By the end of December, I’ll have enough time to evaluate without emotional connection to it, just really being able to look at the tape, looking at the performance of our guys — looking at the people who performed well, why they performed well, people who maybe didn’t perform at a level, what we could have done to help them. That’s the evaluation process that we have for our program, not necessarily just for the coaches.”
The number of junior college commitments indicates the Pirates are looking for immediate help for 2017 in some areas.
“We’re working on, not only that but my biggest concern is that you’ve got to bring in football people,” Montgomery said. “We’ve got to have people that are great academicians and great people but football has got to mean a lot to them. That’s what we’ve got to do. And then our offensive and defensive fronts, we spend a lot of time making sure that that’s the case. You don’t always necessarily need the five-star guys. We took a guy, Laken Tomlinson, at Duke. The only other offer he had was Illinois. But his personality — he got on two or three buses to get to school and to be at practice and to be able to play football. Then, of course, four years later, Laken Tomlinson was a first-round draft pick.
“We’ve got to make sure we win those battles. Winning those battles has nothing to do with recruiting against anybody else. You have to be honest with yourself and say, ‘OK, this is a guy who is not quite what we thought’ or ‘here’s a guy no one is talking about but this is a guy that we need to be in our program and deserves to be a Pirate.’ There’s a lot of work to do.”