ECU moves within 1 win of bowl eligibility with rout of Temple

The Pirates finally found themselves on the right side of a blowout after a dominant 45-3 victory at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium

ECU tight end Ryan Jones scores a touchdown against Temple during Saturday's 45-3 win in Greenville. (Scott Davis / The Daily Reflector via AP)

GREENVILLE — East Carolina has been involved in some lopsided football games over the past six-plus seasons.

This time, it ended up on the right side of the equation.

After losing all 11 games decided by 35 or more points since their most recent winning season in 2014, the Pirates finally got to do a little piling on of their own in a 45-3 dismantling of Temple at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

Holton Ahlers threw a pair of touchdown passes to tight end Ryan Jones and Keaton Mitchell ran for two more scores to lead ECU, while the defense held the Owls to just 168 total yards and just missed out on its first shutout since the turn of the century.

The victory was especially sweet for the Pirates’ most veteran members. Not only did it move them to within one win of bowl eligibility, but it also exorcised the ghosts of a 49-6 blowout at the hands of the Owls in 2018.

“Our program has changed a lot since my freshman year,” said Ahlers, who was there for forgettable afternoon four years ago. “My freshman year we went to Philly and we were the team that in the first quarter, it was done. 

“To be in Dowdy tonight, to have that score, to not play the whole fourth quarter, it’s just a super blessing. Being part of this program changing is something. It’s something I’m proud of. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s cool to be in the moment.”

The Pirates (5-4, 3-2 American Athletic Conference) are over .500 in November for the first time since 2014. That was the season in which they earned their last postseason trip, to the Birmingham Bowl when Ruffin McNeill, who was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame this weekend, was still the coach.

They can end that drought by winning one of their final three games — next week at Memphis, Nov. 20 at Navy or in the regular season finale against No. 2 Cincinnati. Although the finish line is within sight and getting closer with each passing victory, the Pirates are trying their best to keep from getting ahead of themselves.

Even though coach Mike Houston admitted that every player in the locker room knows the situation.

“I don’t want to taste it until it’s here,” said junior linebacker Myles Fox, who led the way with seven tackles, two quarterback hurries and a pair of pass breakups against the Owls. “Great win, No. 5. We’re just trying to get to No. 6 and keep stacking those wins.”

The Pirates took two possessions to get cranked up offensively, but once they did they never looked back, scoring touchdowns on six of their next eight completed drives.

Ahlers opened the scoring late in the opening quarter by hitting a wide-open Jones with a 33-yard pass over the middle. He then dropped a perfectly placed 28-yard rainbow to the Oklahoma transfer, who then tip-toed the final two yards into the end zone to equal his previous career touchdown total.

“I thought Ryan Jones had his best week of practice this week,” Houston said. “I made a comment to (athletic director) Jon Gilbert that he’s making plays in practice that are extremely impressive. There’s going to be a game here where he’s going to have a breakout game, and I think tonight was it.”

“I worked my tail off in practice and everything happened to work out today,” added Jones, a converted linebacker who finished with seven catches for 102 yards, nearly missing a third touchdown when he stepped out of bounds before hitting the pylon.

Ahlers completed 15 of  23 passes for 191 yards and three scores before being relieved early in the fourth quarter. He also ran for 33 yards and a touchdown.

The junior quarterback connected with another tight end, Shane Calhoun, for a 9-yard score to increase ECU’s lead to 21-0 at halftime before Mitchell and the ground game took over.

Mitchell got his first touchdown on a 57-yard run on the opening play of the second half. He got another one from four yards out on his way to a 147-yard performance, the fourth time this season he’s been in triple digits.

From that point on, the only suspense remaining was whether the Pirates would be able to finish off their first shutout since a 38-0 whitewash of Duke in 2000.

That bid ended when Temple’s Rory Bell connected on a 46-yard field goal in the fourth quarter following an interception of backup quarterback Mason Garcia. Bell had earlier missed two field goals from similar distances.

Even with that one blemish, it was a standout day for ECU’s rapidly improving defense, which limited two Temple quarterbacks to a combined 13 of 33 for just 57 yards. The Owls rushed for 111 yards, a majority of which were scrambles by freshman backup quarterback Justin Lynch.

“We really wanted that goose egg,” freshman defensive lineman Elijah Morris said before admitting that “you couldn’t ask for anything more.”

That is, at least until next week when they get their first shot at earning win No. 6.