East Carolina overcame a delay and played its most complete game of the season, using big plays and a stout defense to snap a six-game losing streak against Temple and win 28-3 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Quarterback Holton Ahlers threw for two touchdowns and rushed for another, and freshman running back Keaton Mitchell had his second straight 100-yard game for the Pirates. Tyler Snead scored twice — once on a long touchdown pass and the other on a kick return — to lead East Carolina.
1. It looked like the game might fall victim to COVID-19 when a Temple player was taken back to the campus to be tested after showing symptoms. The player, who’s girlfriend had tested positive, retested positive.
The positive test and contact tracing led to five players — linebacker George Reid, defensive backs Christian Braswell, Kimere Brown and Nate Wyatt, and defensive end Arnold Ebiketie — being placed in COVID-19 protocol and missing the game. Three other players, including quarterback Anthony Russo, were already unavailable for the game because of coronavirus contact tracing. The noon start was pushed back 50 minutes while awaiting the result.
“The one thing I’ve learned about 2020 is you got to be ready for anything at any time, any day,” ECU coach Mike Houston said following the game. “You control what you can control … and we were just relieved that we got the green light to play.”
2. There had to be a bit of “here we go again” for the Pirates when the team’s first two drives ended in failed field goals. The first, a 42-yard attempt by Jake Verity, was blocked. The second, from 35 yards, made it past the Owls front but hooked wide.
But after that, ECU spent the rest of the afternoon putting points on the board with big plays. Ahlers had touchdown passes of 60 and 46 yards in the first half — to C.J. Johnson and Snead, respectively. Temple’s only points, a field goal early in the second quarter, were answered immediately with a weaving 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Snead.
3. The Pirates’ defense had its best performance of the Mike Houston era. Not only did ECU allow only three points — the fewest since a 41-3 win over UConn in 2016 — but it made big plays of its own.
A forced fumble early in the second quarter ended an Owls drive in ECU territory when the game was 7-0. Then Temple drove into the red zone down 14-3 later in the quarter, but Shawn Dourseau intercepted Owls quarterback Kamal Gray in the end zone to end the threat. Temple — down to its fifth-string quarterback — had just 95 passing yards, and the Owls finished with just 235 total for the game.
Number to know
75 — Distance in yards of a third-quarter run for Ahlers, 37 more than he had all season coming into Saturday’s game. It’s not that Ahlers is averse to carrying the ball — he rushed for more than 900 yards total in his first two seasons in Greenville, scoring six touchdowns on the ground each season — but it’s been significantly dialed back this year.
It was a designed draw for Ahlers, and he followed his blocks all the way to the goal line. But rather than dive in or lower his head to cross the plane, he reached the ball out while stepping out of bounds. After it initially being called a touchdown, the play was reviewed and ruled out of bounds at the half-yard line.
“I’m embarrassed. That’s probably the most embarrassed I’ve ever been,” Ahlers said jokingly after the game. “I’m glad it was only on ESPN+, to be honest with you. Because if not, I’m sure we’ll be everywhere right now.”
Houston called it a coachable moment, and ECU called Ahlers’ number on the following play and he scored for his first rushing touchdown of the season.
They said it
“We needed that, man.”
— ECU coach Mike Houston on the Pirates getting their first win since Oct. 10 and second of the season.
Player of the Game
Tyler Snead, ECU wide receiver/returner — Snead was a big-play machine Saturday for the Pirates. On top of his 75 receiving yards — including the 46-yard score — and 95-yard kick return touchdown, Snead was close to breaking a couple punt returns.
The only thing he didn’t do right? A leap into the empty stands following his kick return that ended with him on his head in the first row.
“I just kind of fell in there then didn’t really have a landing,” Snead said. “I didn’t stick anything, but it’s just all in the moment.”
There wasn’t much to dislike from Saturday’s performance. It was clear that both Houston and his players were relieved to get in the win column after several disappointing outcomes this season, and the Pirates were already looking ahead in anticipation of next week’s matchup in Greenville with SMU.
If one thing is learned, perhaps Houston will call Ahlers’ number more often in the run game. That dimension of the quarterback’s game gives defenses even more to worry about every snap if the Pirates utilize it.