Between the announcement of a potential game with N.C. State to end the regular season and news of player departures and suspensions, Saturday’s noon game at Temple seemed to have taken a back seat this week.
That’s hardly the case within the program as the Pirates look to extend the momentum of a suspenseful 37-35 win over Old Dominion last Saturday as they return to American Athletic Conference play.
Several players will not be making the trip to Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Owls and the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. Tim Irvin has been dismissed from the team for conduct detrimental to the program. The transfer from Auburn and nephew of hall of famer Michael Irvin had seen limited time at nickel back due to injuries and suspension.
“Tim was coming off the bench for us as a reserve,” said ECU coach Scottie Montgomery. “I thought he was playing pretty good as a reserve. What we’ll have to do is what we’ve done in weeks previous when he wasn’t playing. We’ll have Myles Berry in the mix. We’ll have Gerard Stringer in the mix. Of course, we’ll have [Devon] Sutton still as our starter at the position.”
Keyshawn Canady, a defender in the secondary turned running back who came back to the defensive unit, left the program after seeing limited action this season.
Montgomery confirmed that Dorian Hardy, a heralded true freshman on the defensive front, would not be traveling after being charged with resisting arrest. Hardy was listed as the No. 3 recruit in New Jersey last year.
Offensive lineman Branden Pena left Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on the back of a motorized unit late in the first half against the Monarchs.
“It looks like he’s going to be down a few weeks,” Montgomery said. “We won’t have him this week. We’ll be working a host of people there . . . to figure out exactly which way we’re going. We think that Fernando Frye did a good job but we’ve also got to get a lot of people reps because as quickly as Pena went down, Fernando Frye could have the same thing go on. We’ve got a little bit more depth this year and we’re a little bit deeper as a football team so we’re not as hesitant to get a lot of people reps.”
Temple presents challenges
Temple will be a demanding test for the Pirates, who are 0-4 in AAC meetings against the Owls. The league series started with the 20-10 loss in Philadelphia in 2014. ECU went into the game nationally-ranked at 6-1 and had a demanding lead in total yardage on a cold, rainy day but was undone by five lost fumbles.
Temple has been up and down in a 2-3 start. The Owls opened with losses to Villanova and Buffalo before stunning host Maryland 35-14. The Owls won their league opener with Tulsa, 31-17, before being topped 45-35 by host Boston College last Saturday.
“Offensively, they have a physical run game with a physical back (Ryquell Armstead) that likes to get the ball downhill,” Montgomery said. “Once he gets into the second and third level, he’s really extremely hard to get on the ground.
“The other thing that they present, they just hit you with so many different formations, a lot like we did last week. They use those formations to create gaps and seams in the run game if you’re not sound. They’ve caught a couple of people this year with moving those formations. I think the earlier part of the game will determine how much we see them, how well we handle the alignment by our backers and our safeties, just some of those formations.
“Defensively, the challenge they present, they’re physical at linebacker. They do a good job in their defensive front. They can really get downhill sideline to sideline. Their two toughest players on the team are their middle linebackers. They’ve played a lot of good football. They’re really, really active in the secondary. In the back end, they have great ball skills. They can take the ball out of the air and they can catch it. They can get jumps on quarterbacks. They eye down defenders. When they’re playing a middle field safety defense, which they like to do a little bit if a quarterback looks down the fade or a go ball too long, the safety is going to get off the hash. He’s going to make the play.
“So we’ve got to be exceptional with our fundamentals at quarterback. We’ve got to be able to stop the run.
“Offensively, we’ve got to be able to run the football and continue to create ways to run the football. Probably the biggest challenge collectively is what they do on special teams. They’ve blocked a PAT. They’ve blocked a field goal. They’ve blocked a punt. And they have two exceptional returners. So those are the things that we’re concentrating on. We had a great practice [Tuesday], special teams-wise and defense and offense. We’re looking forward to the challenge. We’re really practicing with a lot more confidence so we’re practicing better. Hopefully, we’ll play even better.”
Series history, motivation
Breaking the AAC goose egg against the Owls is dangling in front of the Pirates in a motivational sort of way.
“Yeah, definitely,” Montgomery said. “We’re trying to overcome some of the things and growing stronger and taller in our conference. The way you have to do this, you have to beat the teams that you necessarily haven’t beat. Temple has been really good over the last several years.
“[Former coach] Matt Rhule did a good job of recruiting well and now Coach [Geoff] Collins is doing the same thing of continuing the tradition of recruiting and recruiting tough players. I think it is really, really important for us to come out and play well early and play physical early. We’re going against a physical football team. We’re a lot better than we have been in the last couple of years and we’re continuing to grow.”
Alex Turner stepping up
Junior defensive lineman Alex Turner, a Dean’s List performer academically, had seven tackles against ODU. He had a sack and a stop on the series that got the ball back for ECU’s winning drive.
“He’s playing really, really well,” Montgomery said. “He’s played well all year. Sometimes when you’re an interior lineman, you don’t show up in the stat sheet because you’re taking on double teams. You’re ruining double teams and then the linebacker gets off clean.
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“Well now, he’s ruining double teams and making the plays. That’s what you start to look for from a guy who’s been in your program three years. A lot of our guys who have been in the program three years are starting to show up on our defense and our offense. We’re really fortunate to have him playing at the level he’s playing at. He is playing well.
“Coach [Rod] Wright (defensive line coach), and Coach [David] Blackwell (defensive coordinator) have done a good job of putting together a rotation package where we’re getting fresh D-linemen in there. That speaks to our recruiting. It speaks to our depth as well. Last year, we couldn’t play as many people as we’re playing now at the level they’re playing at so we’ve just got to continue to grow it moving forward.”
Sophomore Reid Herring has been the starter at quarterback this season, but true freshman Holton Ahlers has provided some exciting run production in a backup role and redshirt freshman Kingsley Ifedi has also gotten some meaningful snaps this season.
“This week we’ve been practicing to make sure we clean up our decision making,” Montgomery said. ” I think we had a couple of bad decisions by two of our quarterbacks throughout the game that we could have made a little better decisions on. We’ve got to make some better decisions. …
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“They’re playing really good for first-year quarterbacks. We’re really excited about all three of them. I know it’s really unique the way that we’re playing, but I think if you start to watch around the country, you’re going to see some unique situations. Even Temple, they’re playing three different quarterbacks at times. It’s just the uniqueness of where we are in the college football landscape. We’ve been blessed with some really good players at the position and we’re going to try to use them to the best of our ability to get a win.”
The noon kickoff actually will be a later start than most days for the Pirates, who have gone to morning practices this season.
“We’ll be up and we’ll be ready to go,” Montgomery said. “Our kids, we’re kind of programmed right now to get up at 5:30 in the morning and get rolling. That won’t be a problem for us. We enjoy going out and playing in the early part of the day. The guys will be ready to go. It is very similar to when we practice. We get off the field at such an early time. We’re off the field by 10 a.m. A lot of them are in treatment by 6 a.m. We’re an early-morning practice team. Our guys get up and get going. We run throughout basically the remainder of the day. We’re really happy to be playing at that time.”
Keys this week
ECU has gotten better results from its run game this season and that dimension needs to continue.
“When we talk about the run game, we have to continue to use creativity to run it,” Montgomery said. “I think it’s very important for our running backs to understand we need the dirty yards, but we also need to know when we don’t need to go attack two to three defenders in this game. There’s going to be some situations to where we want to split those defenders, get as skinny as we can, get the ball vertical and get down on the ground versus going to take on three or four defenders. They do a good job of holding you up and ripping the ball out, so we’ve got to protect it in the run game.
“Defensively, we’re going to have to wrap when we get to tackle point. This is not going to be a situation to where we can hit guys like we’ve done in the past couple of weeks and they go down. This is not that type of game. We’re going to have to hit and wrap. The next guy is going to come and hit and wrap. We’re going to have to gang tackle and everybody is going to have to wrap this ball carrier to get him on the ground. (He is) a very, very hard downhill runner. I think those are the fundamentals it comes down to.
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“Special teams, we’ve got to be sound. What Coach [Kirk] Doll (special teams coordinator) and myself ask them to do, they have to do this week. We had a really, really intense first day of practice on special teams because they are really, really good, not only schematically, but physically they’re good. They play through the echo of the whistle. There are some small details in alignment that we think that we can give them that will cause them some strife, but we’ve got to make sure we do it correctly every single time.”