East Carolina coach Mike Houston talked about a 42-3 home loss to Houston on Saturday as the Pirates looked more like the program he took over than the one ECU has become.
Hopefully for the hosts, the contest with the Cougars was an aberration as the Pirates (6-5, 3-4 American Athletic Conference) head for Temple (3-8, 1-6) on Saturday for a 1 p.m. kickoff.
“For starters, you have to acknowledge a tremendous performance by the University of Houston,” said the fourth-year ECU coach. “There’s a reason they were picked preseason No. 1 in our conference and Top 15-, Top-12 team in the country preseason. They were at full strength last Saturday and played their best game of the year.
“They had a lot to do with the way things turned out. The flip side of that is we did not play well and my big focus since the game Saturday has been on identifying things that didn’t go well for us, the mistakes we made, things we can do better, things we have to get corrected, and then making sure that our coaches and our players are addressing those and moving forward, focusing on Temple.”
Regrouping on Sunday
The Pirates assembled for their customary Sunday evening workout after Saturday’s debacle, bewildering and frustrating in its magnitude.
“We had a very focused workout with some urgency Sunday,” Coach Houston said Tuesday morning. “The players responded the way everybody did and that’s we’re all ticked off the way we played. Not happy with our performance and we want to make sure that we get that corrected.”
ECU will celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday as a team.
“We’ll practice Thursday morning,” Houston said. “All the students go home for fall break after today. So, players are the ones that are still here on campus. So, Thursday morning we’ll practice and then we’ll have a Thanksgiving lunch early Thursday afternoon.
“The players will have Thursday evening off. A lot of them will have some family coming into town and they’ll get together and do some stuff Thursday evening. Coaches will have a little bit of time with their families Thursday night. We’ll make sure that we take time to be thankful for everything God’s blessed us with, and He’s blessed us greatly, given us the opportunity to be here together and giving us our health and giving us the opportunity to represent this university.”
Who are the Owls?
A 70-13 loss at Central Florida on Oct. 13 does not accurately define this year’s Temple team.
“That’s the one outlier of their season is that game and I do think that was probably a turning point of their season because you look at the way they played down the stretch and they’re playing very, very well,” Houston said. “They had an overtime loss (20-27) at Navy. They blew out South Florida (54-28) in Philadelphia. Then they had a game at Houston where they led with 40 seconds to go, and Clayton Tune hit a 44-yard touchdown pass on a post route on a busted coverage to win the game (43-36). So, for all intents and purposes, they should have knocked off Houston at Houston. Last week against Cincinnati, I thought they played very well.
“The one thing that got them was turnovers (four) and that’s really the only reason the game was 23-3, was an interception thrown in Cincinnati’s end zone that goes for a touchdown. It changes the game, and they turn the ball over on their own 20, which gave Cincinnati their second score of the game and then they turn it over again going into the end zone on about the 15-yard line.
“So, you take those three turnovers and they go the other way and you’re looking at a game that goes down to the wire and they have a chance to win. So, I think they defended Cincinnati very, very well. I thought (quarterback E.J.) Warner had a solid game between the 20s. They just didn’t capitalize in the red zone. So, their team’s playing very well. They’re a very dangerous football team because they are talented defensively.
“They’re top five in the country in sacks and their two defensive ends (Layton Jordan, Darian Varner) have nine sacks and 7.5 sacks each. So, they’re going to create a lot of problems for us on that side of the football and then E.J. Warner, the son of NFL Hall of Famer, Kurt Warner, he looks very similar to his dad the way he plays and he’s having an outstanding season. He certainly does not look like a freshman.”
Temple up front
Houston noted Temple’s size up front and their proclivity for physical play.
“Offensively they had the traditional big physical offensive front,” Houston said. “I mean they’re 6-8, 6-5, 6-7 across the front. So, they’re massive. They have the big back in (Edward) Saydee, No. 23. He’s a 215-pound back. Played against us last year. Hard to tackle. They have two really top end tight ends in (David Martin-) Robinson and (Jordan) Smith. And so, you’re going to see a lot of the traditional Temple 12 personnel, run the football, try to knock you off the ball, kind of black your eyes kind of stuff.
“The real difference in them this year though is Warner and his ability to throw the football. They’re very talented, the receiver position. I mentioned the two tight ends. They both have 20-some odd catches on the year. (Jose) Barbon, (Amad) Anderson (Jr.) and (Adonicas) Sanders are all three really, really solid receivers. Barbon, No. 10, has had some big-play situations throughout the year.
“And I’m telling you, Warner, he doesn’t … take sacks. He gets the ball out of his hands really, really quick. Makes great decisions. He really is the key to this offense. They have some RPOs (run-pass options), but they’re a quick game, drop back, run the football style offense and against Houston, Warner threw for 486 yards. So, he has the ability to put up huge numbers. So, they’re a very dangerous offense.
“Defensively, it is traditionally what you think of when you think of Temple. They’re a four down, three down, multiple front defense. They don’t pressure a ton. They play a lot of base defense because they do have dynamic players up front that can generate a lot of pressure and create havoc with their front four. They’re long on the back end. Very athletic. And they’ve done a great job defending people all throughout the year. It’s going to be a challenge on Saturday.”
ECU practice priorities
Preparation this week will be crucial in returning to the form that produced three straight wins and a competitive loss at Cincinnati prior to the Houston game.
“Our practice focus this week has got to be on us and our process and deliberate intent with the way we practice and our practice intensity,” Houston said. “Our preparation is critical. That’s been my focus with the players since Sunday is we’ve got to focus on how we prepare each day. … We’ve got to have a great introductory practice (Tuesday) with Temple’s base game plan, the base schemes that we’re going to play offensively, defensively, special teams.
“We got to have a little bit of a get-after-it practice (Tuesday) where we prepare for the physicality that we’ve got to play with on Saturday and then we’ve got to continue to build each day, stack days, have a great Tuesday and then once we have a great Tuesday, let’s focus on Wednesday. But we’ve got to do a great job with just being very deliberate with our preparation this week as we build towards Saturday.”
Houston focused on the factors that will allow ECU to finish the regular season on a winning note.
“We’ve got to play Pirate football,” he said. “We’ve got to focus on us and being the team that we can be on Saturday. It’s a tough place to play. It’s always tough to play in Philadelphia. It’s Thanksgiving weekend and you’re playing a team that’s playing their best ball of the year here at the end.
“We’ve got to focus on us being the best version of ourselves. Back to physicality, execution, doing a great job offensively with driving the football, both throwing it and running it. Defensively, doing a great job of winning up front. Really being aggressive in the secondary and not giving up explosive plays. Try to get Warner off schedule. Those are all going to be keys.
“Special teams-wise, it’s probably going to be a game that comes down to you got to win the kicking game to win it because it’s going to be a tight ball game.”
ECU has not had back-to-back winning seasons since 2013 (10-3) and 2014 (8-5). A win Saturday will put the Pirates at 7-5 with a bowl game remaining. ECU was 7-5 in 2021.
“It’s been a while,” Houston said. “We’re excited we’re in a bowl game for the second straight year, which has been a long time since that happened also. So, our kids are very motivated to make sure that we try to go up there and get win number seven and then we’ll worry about what bowl game we play in.”