GREENVILLE — East Carolina continued to progress as a program with a thorough 45-3 American Athletic Conference victory over Temple on Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The Pirates (5-4, 3-2 AAC) will have the opportunity to become bowl eligible for the first time since the 2014 season with a trip to Memphis next Saturday (ESPN+, noon, ET).
“Really proud of the kids,” said third-year ECU coach Mike Houston as the Pirates notched the most wins in a season since the 2014 edition went 8-5. “We wanted to come out and try to win all three phases. I think we did that.
“I love the physicality we’re playing with, the intensity we’re playing with, the way we’re playing together. It’s all the things we’ve been preaching, preaching and preaching and the kids are just doing a great job.”
One of the program’s objectives in the Houston era has been to increase depth at tight end and to utilize that position more in the offense. ECU led 21-0 at the half and all three scores were receptions by tight ends.
Ryan Jones, who transferred from Oklahoma, where he played linebacker, continued his transition to offense with six catches for 102 yards with two touchdowns. Jones hauled in a 33-yard pass down the middle from Holton Ahlers with 3:19 left in the first quarter to put the Pirates ahead to stay.
A 28-yard scoring pass from Ahlers to Jones gave ECU a 14-0 lead with 8:17 left in the half.
Jones said the scoring routes got reps in practice this week. Houston noted that Jones made a remarkable catch in Wednesday’s workout.
“I’ve said it all along since (Jones) got here, he’s a special talent,” said Ahlers who completed 15 of 23 for 191 yards with three scores and one interception. “He’s still going to grow and get better. We’ve got guys around him in that tight end room who are ballers.”
Ahlers found Shane Calhoun for a 9-yard TD just 1:33 before the break.
The Pirates didn’t exclusively travel by air as the running game produced 246 yards, a big chunk coming on a 57-yard bolt for six points by Keaton Mitchell on the first snap of the second half. Ahlers turned lead blocker on the play, making like a tight end himself.
Mitchell ran 18 times for 146 yards with two TDs. Rahjai Harris rushed 12 times for 43 yards. Five keepers by Ahlers accounted for 33 yards, including a 1-yard run for a TD with 12:27 to go after a 6-yard pass to Jones was initially signaled a score before he was ruled out of bounds on review.
The Owls (3-6, 1-4) avoided a shutout with a 46-yard field goal by Rory Bell with 6:55 left.
Back-up quarterback Mason Garcia directed the Pirates for a 24-yard field goal by Owen Daffer to complete the scoring with 1:49 remaining. The possession started at the Temple 30 after Warren Saba returned an onside kick 16 yards.
ECU ended a 6-game AAC losing streak to the Owls last year by a 28-3 margin in Philadelphia with Temple down to a fifth-stringer at quarterback. The visitors turned to Justin Lynch on Saturday after starter D’Wan Mathis went out.
The Pirates had a 444-168 lead in total yards as linebacker Myles Berry led ECU in tackles with seven, including five solo stops.
Memphis (5-4, 2-3) is coming off a 28-25 win over Southern Methodist. The Pirates travel to Navy on Nov, 20 and host Cincinnati to conclude the regular season on Nov. 26.
“We’re starting to build something special here and it showed there today,” Ahlers said. “Super proud of the defense. They should have had a shutout. … They played really well and the offensive line played well — gave us time to make plays.”