GREENVILLE — East Carolina opened its “Paint It Black” night on ESPN’s Thursday night national TV game with an impressive 12-play, 90-yard scoring drive. Then reality set in.
The Pirates hung around with Temple for about 44 minutes before being worn down by the the Owls, who pounded out 237 yards rushing and 490 total offense en route to 27-17 win at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. ECU’s touchdown with 29 seconds to play made the game seem closer than it was.
The Pirates dropped to 3-3 overall and 0-2 in the AAC East, with the earlier conference loss 42-10 at Navy. Temple (4-1, 1-0 AAC East) has beaten ECU six straight years, every season since the Pirates joined the AAC.
“We had a great start and the stadium was electric,” ECU coach Mike Houston told the media after the game. “It’s why I came to East Carolina, but we had a lull in the third quarter and the game got away from us. They controlled the ball. They have some big guys and depth, but we’ve got to be able to fight through adversity. I will find 11 guys that will fight.”
Despite the loss, the Pirates weren’t embarrassed as they have been the last three seasons, when Temple has outscored them by a combined 113-33. ECU Thursday night took leads of 7-0 and 10-7 and was still in the game at halftime, trailing 17-10.
“It’s the next step,” Houston said. “This is a tough conference. I’m sure they’ll have a lot of people patting them on the back saying they’ve come a long way, but we’re not into moral victories. There are some positives to take from this, but you play the game to win.”
The first-quarter drive mixed in some quick passes to the outside and running play gains of 18 from quarterback Holton Ahlers and 13 from true freshman running back Demetrius Mauney. The touchdown was Ahlers’ 14-yarder to wide receiver C.J. Johnson that split two defensive backs in the middle. Johnson caught another for 10 yards at the end of the game
Ahlers, whose protection wore down from the first drive, finished the game 19-of-30 for 229 yards with one touchdown without an interception. Johnson caught career-highs in both receptions (eight) and yards (100).
Defensive end Kendall Futrell followed up last week’s career-best game in a win at Old Dominion (seven tackles, three sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss) with another impressive performance. Against Temple, he finished with five tackles with two sacks, 3.5 TFLs and a forced fumble.
The 6-2, 226-pound senior’s forced fumble was on Temple’s first possession of the second half. The Owls had advanced to ECU’s 22-yard line when Futrell stripped quarterback Anthony Russo.
Ahlers and Johnson, both from Greenville, recaptured some hometown magic from their days of playing together at D.H. Conley High. Ahlers, a sophomore, connected with Johnson, a 6-2, 229-pound true freshman, for six catches and 85 yards in the first half.
In high school, Johnson’s freshman, sophomore and juniors seasons, he caught passes from Ahlers totaling 156 balls for 3,302 yards and 32 touchdowns.
Junior defensive lineman Chance Purvis’ injury with 11:27 left in the second quarter tested the Pirates’ depth. With ECU leading 7-3, the Pirates turned to a pair of inexperienced backups, true freshman Rick D’Abreu and junior Chandon Hickerson. Temple began pounding the ball over its side of the line for back-to-back touchdowns drives.
Purvis was injured making a tackle on Temple’s opening play of their first touchdown drive that covered 10 plays, 65 yards. On the Owls’ next possession, aided by Isaiah Wright’s 55-yard kickoff return, Temple scored on a six-play, 45-yard possession for a 17-10 halftime lead.
“We had a couple of people dinged up, but we can’t depend on one person,” Houston said after the game. “We’ve got to build this program’s depth. We’ve got a good recruiting class coming in. This is not what this program is going to look like.”
ECU’s three wins toward a total of six needed for bowl eligibility is a bit misleading. The Pirates have beaten two Football Championship Subdivision teams (Gardner Webb and William & Mary), but the NCAA counts only one FCS victory toward the six wins needed. There are moving parts to the equation, though. If there aren’t enough six-win teams to fill all the bowl slots, teams can apply for a waiver.
William & Mary was added to the Pirates’ schedule when Virginia Tech canceled its game with ECU. ECU canceled its trip to Virginia Tech last season because of Hurricane Florence.
4 Games junior running back Darius Pinnix Jr. has missed after he started the first two. He set career highs in rushes (21) and yards (134) in the Pirates’ 48-9 win over Gardner Webb but turned up during the week with a stinger/neck injury that has been slow to heal.
17 Number of points or fewer that Temple has yielded in its four victories.
77 The Pirates’ yards rushing in the first quarter, although they had only 81 at halftime and 98 for the game. In ECU’s previous two games against FCS opponents they had only 41 at N.C. State and 84 at Navy.
3:36 Time remaining in the game the lights on the press box side of the stadium went dark for about 10 minutes. It was, coincidentally, “BlackOut” night, as fans dressed in black and the players wore black uniforms.
0 ECU penalties in the first half (2-for-10 for the night).
80 Temperature for the 8 p.m. kickoff after a 97-degree heat was recorded in the afternoon. For Oct. 3, it was the highest temperature in recorded history in eastern North Carolina. The temperature was 86 one hour before kickoff.
33,253 Attendance on a night the Pirates were above .500 for the first time since 2016. The heat may have accounted for the empty bleacher seats on a night a larger crowd was expected.