GREENVILLE — A program that has yearned for a return to relevance got 60 minutes on the big stage Thursday night.
East Carolina football was on display on ESPN against Temple and viewers saw the Pirates put forth a competitive effort under first-year coach Mike Houston, albeit a 27-17 loss that dropped ECU to 3-3 overall and 0-2 in the American Athletic Conference.
A win was what the mostly black-clad Pirate fans among a crowd of 33,253 wanted to see, but they had to settle for significant improvement from a 49-6 loss to the Owls in Philadelphia last season.
“I told the kids in there, they are going to have a lot of people patting them on the back, telling them good game, you’re really coming along and all that stuff, but we’re not in it for moral victories,” Houston said. “We can take some positives out of this, yes.
“People can look at the score the last couple of years and look at our score tonight and say that the program is improving. That’s all fine and good, but you play the game to win.
“That’s what we’re setting out to do. We’ve got to do things better if we’re going to win these ball games.”
ECU will have time to correct mistakes and refocus before playing at Central Florida on Oct. 19.
There was an unanticipated blackout on a night when fans were encouraged to dress for a blackout.
The Pirate offense made an impressive start, but were stymied subsequently by a Temple defense until a late touchdown after the stadium lights went out for about 15 minutes with 3:52 left to play.
“The lights are new,” said ECU athletic director Jon Gilbert. “We’re pretty positive it was a programming error that shut them off. We’re working to find out exactly what that was.
“The electricians actually over-rode the computer at the breaker system. So, not something that we expected. We’ll work to get that corrected.”
Houston didn’t want to see the game called because of the malfunction. The Pirates were looking to get a stop with Temple facing 3rd-and-13 at the ECU 39 when Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium darkened.
“You’re hoping the lights come back on,” Houston said. “Certainly, it was not ideal. The other option was calling the game and I didn’t want to do that. We score the touchdown and get an onside kick, I had visions in my mind of getting another score in there and having a chance with an onside kick and a Hail Mary. You play until it’s triple zeroes.
“I’m glad they were able to get the lights back on.”
The Owls deferred their option to the second half after winning the opening toss and the Pirates responded by driving 90 yards on their first possession to score on a 14-yard pass from Holton Ahlers to former high school teammate C.J. Johnson for a 7-0 lead with 10:25 left in the first quarter.
“I loved the way that we started the ballgame, the way we were competing,” Houston said. “The stadium was electric; it was everything I came to ECU for. I mean, I was sitting there thinking, at the end of the first quarter, just what a special place this could be.”
Jake Verity was wide right on a 39-yard field goal late in the first quarter that would have given ECU a 10-0 lead.
“That hurt,” Houston said. “The momentum hurt us. That would have been good — it would have been a tighter game at the half. It took some wind out of our sails. But Jake is pretty consistent. He doesn’t do that very often so we can’t complain too much because he comes through most of the time.”
Verity connected on a 39-yarder that tied the score at 10 with 5:52 left in the half. The Owls got the go-ahead score on a 1-yard run by Re’Mahn Davis with 3:21 to go in the half. Davis had 24 carries for 157 yards.
ECU was 3-0 when scoring first this season, but the Owls are allowing just 14 points per game in a 4-1 start and the Pirates could make little headway after the initial drive.
Temple had a 490-327 lead in total yardage. ECU got 84 yards on a series that started with 2:58 remaining in the game. Ahlers had a 37-yard pass to Jsi Hatfield to the Temple 34. The TD came on a 10-yard pass to Johnson.
Defensive back Davondre “Tank” Robinson was in on a game-high 11 tackles for a Pirate defense that was on the field for over 35 minutes. Linebacker Xavier Smith was involved on 10 stops. Linebackers Bruce Bivens and Gerard Stringer were each in on nine tackles. Defensive end Kendall Futrell had two sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, forced a fumble and recovered it for the game’s only turnover.
“It was a close game overall,” said ECU defensive tackle Alex Turner. “We just didn’t execute as well as we should have.”