PHILADELPHIA — Holton Ahlers hit Jaylen Johnson with a 38-yard touchdown pass with 1:11 left to lift East Carolina to a 49-46 win at Temple on Saturday and assure the Pirates of a second straight winning season for the first time since 2014.
“Jaylen was the original guy we were trying to get the ball to there,” Ahlers told the East Carolina radio network. “We had two posts (routes) on the right, trying to clear it out.
“Jaylen was running a country route to the back pylon on that side. It was a 5-step drop. I got my fifth step. I had to move up in the pocket and I had to move left, then roll left.
“You’re really not supposed to throw across your body, but he was wide open there. … I threw it up and he made a really good play. He attacked the ball and scored.”
The decisive pass culminated a possession that started at the ECU 11-yard line after a punt from midfield with the Owls facing 4th-and-1 with 3:16 to go. Temple initially lined up to go for it but went into punt formation after a timeout by the Pirates.
Facing a 3rd-and-10 at the ECU 26, Ahlers handed off to Keaton Mitchell, who picked up a first down with a 22-yard run.
Mitchell had a huge game with 222 yards rushing and three TDs on 27 carries. He also was the Pirates’ top receiver in terms of yards with two catches for 78 yards, including a 73-yard catch and run that gave the Pirates a 28-17 lead in the second quarter.
Jsi Hatfield’s 97-yard kickoff return provided a 21-17 ECU lead with 7:40 left in the first half.
Ahlers threw to Isaiah Winstead for 14 yards to the Temple 38 on the last scoring drive after the first-down run by Mitchell.
Ahlers completed 25 of 37 for 314 yards with three touchdowns and no picks. Winstead had seven catches for 63 yards and a score. C.J. Johnson had six catches for 60 yards.
The upset bid was led by Owls freshman quarterback E.J. Warner, son of former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner. The younger Warner completed 45 of 63 for 527 yards and five TDs with one interception. Malik Fleming’s pick at the Owls 35 and 15-yard return led to an 8-yard scoring tote by Mitchell for a 35-24 ECU lead in the third quarter.
Warner threw incomplete on 4th-and-5 from the Temple 30 with 38 seconds left as Teagan Wilk hit intended receiver David Martin-Robinson as the ball arrived.
Wilk, a safety, had six solo stops and was in on 10 tackles for the Pirates. Safety Jireh Wilson was in on 12 stops with six solos and four tackles for losses.
Linebacker Myles Berry and safety Julius Wood were each in on 11 tackles.
Temple took its last lead at 46-42 with 6:19 remaining on a 15-yard pass from Warner to Martin-Robinson.
“Really proud of our kids,” said fourth-year Pirates coach Mike Houston. “They stuck together, even when we would make some mistakes or have some busts defensively. … What a great job by our offense, winning on the last drive and our defense getting a stop. … You had the stop at midfield to set up the game-winning drive.”
Houston planned to shop for a Christmas tree with his family on Sunday and take it home to decorate. The team will watch the Temple film Monday and have a winners’ dinner afterward. Houston planned to give the team the remainder of the week off before beginning bowl preparations.
The Pirates improved to 7-5 overall and finished 4-4 in the American Athletic Conference. Temple (3-9, 1-8) went 3-4 at home.
“The goal now is to go win a bowl game,” Houston said.