PHILADELPHIA (via ESPN+) — There was a 50-minute delay before the East Carolina-Temple game on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field, but a 28-3 American Athletic Conference win was worth the wait for the Pirates.
ECU (2-6, 2-5 AAC) ended a 4-game losing streak this season and beat the Owls (1-6, 1-6) for the first time in seven tries in AAC play.
A Temple player tested positive late Saturday morning and four more Owls were subsequently sidelined due to contact tracing. The virus issues resulted in the later start.
“2020 keeps on sending us plenty of curveballs,” said Pirates coach Mike Houston. “What a job today to be able to get a win on the road against a team that we have not beaten in conference play in the past. The kids worked very hard in practice this week. We had some adversity with some guys out.
‘We had some guys making their first college start on the offensive line. Walt Stribling, a true freshman, made his first college start. … We were not perfect today but the kids fought. They did a great job with the game plan. It’s exciting to get back on the winning side.”
Big plays helped support a defensive effort that did not yield a touchdown. ECU had six 3-and-outs on defense and generated three turnovers against a Temple offense that was down to its fifth-string quarterback..
Field goal attempts went awry on the Pirates’ first two possessions, but Holton Ahlers connected with his former D.H. Conley teammate, C.J. Johnson, for a 60-yard touchdown to put ECU ahead to stay with 33 seconds left in the first quarter.
After the Owls drew within 7-3, Tyler Snead bolted 95 yards for his second career kickoff return for a touchdown. The former walk-on fell into the end zone last year after a 100-yard return against South Florida. This time he soared into the first row of empty stands as ECU began to pull away with a 14-3 advantage with 11:22 remaining in the half.
A turnover exchange and a 46-yard scoring reception by Snead with 48 seconds left in the half pushed the Pirates’ lead to 21-3. ECU had lost a fumble at its own 21 and Temple had moved to the Pirates’ 8-yard line before Shawn Dourseau intercepted in the end zone for ECU.
A 34-yard run by true freshman Keaton Mitchell set up the scoring strike to Snead.
Mitchell ran 13 times for 103 yards. Classmate Rahjai Harris had 14 carries for 65 yards. Darius Pinnix Jr. returned from an injury with seven rushes for 27 yards in the second half.
The bulk of Ahlers’ 70 yards on six carries came on a 65-yard run in the third quarter. Ahlers was ruled out of bounds at the Temple 1 but scored on a keeper on the next play as ECU went up 28-3 with 11:05 left in the third quarter. After breaking into the clear near midfield, Ahlers extended the ball toward the goal line as he ran out of bounds on his own power.
“Probably the most embarrassed I’ve ever been,” Ahlers said after coming up short on the long quarterback draw. “I’m glad it was on ESPN+ to be honest. … If not, I’m sure it would be everywhere right now.”
Ahlers completed 11 of 22 passes for 182 yards with two TDs and one pick. The Pirates led 447-235 in total yardage as the Owls were limited by a succession of unfortunate circumstances at quarterback. Temple coach Rod Carey had named true freshman Matt Duncan as the starter at the beginning of the week, but Duncan was suspended Saturday morning for breaking team rules. That situation thrust freshman Kamal Gray into the starting role. Gray found out he was starting at 8:40 a.m. Saturday.
Searching for a spark, the Owls turned to receiver Branden Mack at quarterback for a span. He threw incomplete on a pair of passes.
“I didn’t think we were going to play,” Carey said. “We had five guys go into COVID protocol the morning before the game. … When you have one quarterback on your roster, it becomes a safety issue.”
Gray completed 10 of 21 passes for 95 yards with two interceptions. Linebacker Bruce Bivens was in on 11 tackles for ECU with eight solos and a pick. Linebacker Xavier Smith was involved on nine stops with five solos and he also forced a fumble. Bivens, Smith and defensive end Chris Willis each had two tackles for losses.
“The one thing about the Temple team and I know they were without some kids and struggling at quarterback, but those front kids on defense and those front kids on offense, those are the kids we played against last year (27-17 Temple win in Greenville),” Houston said. “That’s a strong bunch. I mean you look at the way they slowed down UCF last week and the way they ran the ball on UCF. That’s a group that can play with anybody in the league.”
The Owls outrushed the Knights, 183-147.
Credit the Pirates with winning the line of scrimmage after a bus ride from Delaware to Philly.
“That’s why I’m so proud of Justin (Chase) and Walt offensively,” Houston said. “Our offensive line, Fernando (Frye) and Sean (Bailey) have been solid all year. Avery Jones has been a great addition right there. Justin and Walt, their first college starts, played very well to give us a shot all day offensively.
“We played a lot of kids on the defensive front. Most of those kids are 18-years old. They get better every single week. D’Anta Johnson, playing his first minutes this week, a freshman out of Virginia, he and Jason Shuford have really been coming on here in the last few weeks of practice. It’s great to see them get in there. I really like that group. They’ve got a lot of energy. They’ve got a lot of potential. They’re green as all get-out, but they’re only going to get better with every snap they play.”
ECU wore gold pants and purple helmets for the first time on the road since a 58-3 loss at N.C. State to close the 2018 season. The last trip to Temple produced a 49-6 loss that year.
“I think the score kind of speaks for itself,” Ahlers said. “It’s moving in the right direction. There are a lot of tough days ahead. This year has been tough. We haven’t won as many games as we would like to but you’ve got to keep believing.”
The Pirates are scheduled to close the regular season at home against Southern Methodist (7-2, 4-2) on Saturday at noon. Ahlers threw for 498 yards and six touchdowns in a 59-51 loss to the Mustangs, then-ranked No. 23, last year in Dallas. Snead had 19 catches for 240 yards with three scores.
“Hopefully, we can have a repeat of last year,” Snead said. “Just change the ending.”