East Carolina has been through some difficult and unfair situations in the 2020 season.
Having to play without quarterback Holton Ahlers in a 27-23 loss to Navy on Oct. 17 due to an apparently false positive COVID-19 test was a significant hindrance.
Then there was the succession of calls against the Pirates in what goes down as a 34-30 loss at Tulsa on Oct. 30. The American Athletic Conference admitted to a replay review error with 1:52 remaining that would have given ECU possession with a 30-27 lead.
As the Pirates head to Temple on Saturday for a noon kickoff (ESPN+), they will face a team that has certainly had its share of challenges as well.
Foremost among the unfortunate circumstances for the Owls is their quarterback debacle.
Anthony Russo, who completed 23 of 34 for 208 yards and a touchdown in a 27-17 win in Greenville last season, has been out for four games. Initially, a shoulder injury sidelined Russo. Then there were coronavirus issues.
Russo’s back-up, Trad Beatty, was injured in a 47-23 home loss to Southern Methodist on Nov. 7 and is currently out.
Temple started Iowa State transfer Re-al Mitchell at quarterback in a 38-13 loss at Central Florida. Mitchell is injured and is not expected to return this season.
That puts the Owls down to their fourth-string quarterback, true freshman Matt Duncan, who played sparingly last week at UCF in his first college action. Duncan was directing the scout team until the succession of ailments in the quarterback room moved him up the depth chart.
Todd Centeio, who saw some action behind Russo in Greenville in 2019, transferred to Colorado State.
Re’Mahn Davis, who ran for 157 yards and a touchdown against the Pirates last year, played in four games for Temple this season and was averaging 80.8 yards rushing per game. Then Davis opted to enter the transfer portal.
Familiarity with Duncan
Duncan played at Ashley Ridge High School in Summerville, SC. In 39 games, Duncan passed for 6,807 yards and 40 touchdowns.
“We recruited his brother (Steven) when I was at (James Madison), so I’m familiar with the family,” said ECU coach Mike Houston. “I know the high school very well. We have his film from high school. We’ll take a look at that as well as every snap he’s taken this year. He was certainly a talented player coming out of high school. He runs well.
“Lefty, strong arm and very accurate. I thought he showed some athleticism in the latter part of the game against UCF with some of the runs he had. I know they were probably trying to be a little conservative with play calling. With a week under their belt, I’m sure they’ll have a package for him that he can run at a high level. We had that experience earlier this year when we started a true freshman (Mason Garcia) against Navy so I can relate with what they are going through right now.
“He’s got such a strong surrounding cast and it’s going be a challenge for us. We will have to do a great job Saturday. They will have him ready to play at a high level.”
Duncan’s older brother started at Western Kentucky and subsequently transferred to Tarleton State in Texas.
There are similarities between the Pirates and Temple this season. Both are 1-5 in the AAC with their lone win against South Florida.
Both teams had their first three games canceled.
Houston and his Owl counterpart, Rod Carey, are each in their second season at their current program.
Both teams plan to start a left-handed, run-throw quarterback on Saturday.
ECU once led the series with the Owls, 8-3.
That was before the Pirates joined the AAC. Since playing annually beginning in 2014, Temple has won every matchup with ECU.
In the season before Houston’s arrival, the Pirates absorbed a 49-6 beating at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, the largest margin of victory ever for the Owls against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
Temple took a 20-10 home win in 2014 when ECU came in with a 6-1 record. The Pirates had a 5-game winning streak that included wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina.
In that 2014 contest, ECU had a 428-135 lead in total yardage but turnovers were the deciding factor. There were a total of 12 fumbles on a rainy, chilly and windy day. ECU had eight fumbles and lost five of those. The Owls recovered all four of their bobbles.
That game proved to be a turning point in Ruffin McNeill’s coaching career. The Pirates were 35-23 under Ruff before that day. With that loss to Temple, ECU was 7-11 under McNeill for the remainder of his tenure with the Pirates.
Weather for the 2014 ECU-Temple game was 46 degrees with rain and wind from the north at 15 miles per hour.
The forecast Saturday for Philadelphia looks much better — partly sunny with a high of 64.
The city of Philadelphia announced new outdoor restrictions on Monday that prohibit fans at Lincoln Financial Field for Temple and Philadelphia Eagle games.
The Owls had 2,557 on hand for their last home game against SMU.
Bowl seems unlikely
Earlier in the 2020 season, it appeared that the Pirates might end a bowl hiatus that dates back to a 28-20 loss to Florida in the Birmingham Bowl at the close of the 2014 season.
There are no minimums in terms of wins for bowl eligibility this season due to the reduced number of games.
As the Big Ten, PAC-12 and other conferences have opted for returns to football, the number of teams competing for bowl slots has increased significantly.
It is not likely that ticket guarantees will impact the situation if attendance restrictions continue, but ECU would not appear to be in a financial position at present to make such guarantees practical.