Like the brilliant pinpoints of light that glowed from Pirate fans’ cellphones to accent the No Quarter music, East Carolina’s loss to Temple Thursday night was an exercise in finding the bright spots.
The Pirates weren’t deep enough on any part of the field to stop a 4-1 Temple team that added Thursday’s 27-17 result to create a string of six consecutive victories over ECU.
But encouraging moments were in evidence, like an emerging wide receiver with 100 yards in the air and a defensive unit that held the Owls scoreless in the first quarter and kept the game within one touchdown until the final seconds of the third quarter.
Headlining the highlight reel were true freshman wide receiver C.J. Johnson and senior defensive end Kendall Futrell. Johnson finished the game with eight catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns, and Futrell charged Temple quarterback Anthony Russo for a strip sack in the third quarter for the game’s only turnover and a glimmer of hope for the Pirates.
Ultimately, though, ECU was unable to garner any momentum on offense, and Temple’s efficiency on the ground stymied even the best efforts of the Pirates’ defensive standouts. With only 19 offensive yards in the third quarter, the Pirates were powerless to turn the tide once the Owls claimed a 24-10 lead with :07 remaining in the period.
Until that touchdown, the Pirates defense — along with clean play that resulted in only 10 penalty yards for the game — kept the Pirate Nation’s hope alive.
“We talked yesterday afternoon, we kind of laid out, this is how we’re going to win the ballgame, and those were two of the big things — winning the turnover battle and not doing anything to derail ourselves,” said ECU head coach Mike Houston. “But the thing we didn’t do is we weren’t able to shut down the running game.”
The game’s bookends were characterized by the kind of effort the coaching staff wants to see, Houston said, particularly when the offense put together an efficient 12-play drive on its first possession to draw first blood and the defense maintained that lead through the first quarter.
The crowd was energized in the game’s early minutes, the running game was effective, and for that fifteen minutes Houston had a glimpse of what it can look like when ECU is hitting on all cylinders against a very talented team.
The fourth quarter marked an uptick in effort from the sluggish third, and a 10-yard touchdown pass from Holton Ahlers to Johnson in the final minute provided a glimpse of what could have been if the execution had stayed consistent throughout.
“We’ve got to learn how to bow our back and compete when the momentum’s dead against us,” Houston said. “Learning how to overcome adversity is not easy. And I think there are some really bad habits here that we’re breaking, and one of those is hanging our head and feeling sorry for ourself. I’m going to find eleven that’ll fight.”
Senior defensive tackle Alex Turner said that fatigue wasn’t a factor in the team’s third-quarter struggles, but Temple’s multifaceted offensive approach put the Pirates back on their heels and made the game feel like it was out of hand even when the scoreboard indicated otherwise.
“We just let them off the hook, and we should have executed better,” said senior defensive Turner. “The plays we should have made, we left out there. Temple’s a good football team and we let them off the hook. We were close, and we just should have done things better. And all we can do now is just look at the film and try to recover from it and get ready for our next opponent.”
Johnson’s play was encouraging, particularly for a team still searching for its offensive identity. Houston said that despite his youth, Johnson has displayed a level of intensity and coachability that will make him a key scoring threat this season and into the future.
“I think he’s improving every week,” he said. “I like his competitiveness. He has high expectations for himself. I like the fact that you can coach him hard and he’ll respond to it, because he wants to win.
“I think we’ve all seen improvement in our young men week in and week out. And I think they’re continuing to grow, and they’re continuing to change habits, and they’re continuing to learn how to fight. And as long as we continue to do that, we’ll continue to compete throughout the year, and we’ll look up at the end of the year and have a lot of positive things from it.”