ECU can end a couple of negative streaks with a win over Temple on Saturday. Never have the Pirates defeated the Owls in American Athletic Conference play dating back to 2014. ECU is also looking for its second road league win of the season, something the Pirates have not accomplished since 2015.
The Pirates are playing for ninth place in the AAC on Saturday against a 1-5 Temple squad that has been forced to deal with roster limitations due to COVID-19. While ECU will be without a handful of its starters due to injury, the Owls are slated to start their fourth-string quarterback Matt Duncan. Nevertheless, Temple possesses 16 players who have made at least 10 career starts, including four who have made 30 or more.
“Got a big ball game this Saturday in Philadelphia against a very solid Temple football team,” ECU head football coach Mike Houston said. “Looking at the film — and I know they’ve had ups and downs this year — really impressed the play of the guys that they have returning. Especially with the same roster that we faced last year. I know they’ve had some adjustments there at the quarterback position and some new faces in the running back room. But the defensive line, stand up players on both sides, offensive linemen, a lot of the same guys we played against last year. Very solid group. Expecting a big test this weekend.”
Duncan will be making his first collegiate start after Temple’s first three options at quarterback either entered COVID-19 protocol or were shelved with injuries. While there is not much tape on the freshman at this level, he was a three-star recruit coming out of high school and broke his school’s record for career passing years with over 6,800.
A lefty thrower who likes to run the football on occasion, the Pirates spent the early portions of this week finding areas where Duncan excels and ones where he does not.
“You kind of analyze him and the limited number of snaps he has taken this season,” ECU defensive coordinator Blake Harrell said. “You go back and watch high school film, analyze his strengths and weaknesses and kind of who does he compare to that’s played in recent ball games for them. Is he more like (Re-al) Mitchell? Is he more like (Anthony) Russo? That sort of thing, find plays that they may kind of cater to him for his strengths and his abilities.”
Up front, the Owls possess a strong group of offensive linemen. Right tackle Michael Niese and left tackle/right guard Vincent Picozzi each have north of 30 career starts under their belt and help anchor a line that has given up the third-fewest number of quarterback pressures (29) among teams with at least 225 pass snaps this season.
Protecting their young quarterback will be vital for the Owls, but getting pressure on him would seemingly tilt the advantage toward the Pirates on Saturday.
While there has been some trouble getting them the football with all the changes under center, Temple’s wide receiving corps may be the best aspect of the program right now. Redshirt junior Jadan Blue became the Owls’ first 1,000-yard receiver last year and all three of Temple’s top wideouts wear single digits.
For the Owls, those single digits represent the “toughest members of the team” and are sprinkled throughout the roster. Blue dons No. 5, while graduate students Branden Mack and Randle Jones wear Nos. 1 and 0, respectively.
“That tells you a little bit about that receiving corps,” Harrell said. “Blue was No. 18 last year and very dangerous last year and very dangerous this year at a lot of the jet sweeps coming across the field. They like to get the ball in his hands. He’s their leading receiver, a lot of those are the jet sweeps. No. 0, Jones, he took one to the house, I think, the first play of the SMU game for about 70 yards…Those two guys can get up and down the field on you, very good speed, good route-runners, complete package out there at receiver.”
Through six games, the trio of Blue, Mack and Jones have caught 10 touchdown passes and are averaging over 10 yards per reception between them. Mack, who is listed at 6’5” 220 pounds, provides Temple with a go-to red zone option, a part of the field the Owls have fared well in as they have converted 81.5% of their opportunities inside the 20-yard line this season.
“No. 1, he’s kind of their double-pass guy,” Harrell said. “Big body, 6’5” 220-225, he can go up and get the ball. I think they’ll try to take advantage of our smaller corners out there. But he’s a bigger body that they’ll certainly use in the red zone, as well, and on third down.”
About middle of the pack in everything they do offensively, the Owls are toward the bottom of the FBS rankings in scoring defense, having allowed 38.7 points per game thus far. Opponents are racking up north of 430 yards of offense each time out against Temple, nearly 200 of which are rushing yards.
While the Pirates will be entering Saturday night with four 200-yard rushing games already this season and one of the best rushing attacks in program history, there are questions along the offensive line. With ECU’s first two options at left tackle banged up, Justin Chase is slated to get the start there on Saturday.
A good bulk of Chase’s experience, however, comes on the right side of the offensive line at right tackle and guard. The Pirates will also be without Noah Henderson who was slated to fill the right tackle position before he got injured during preseason camp.
Banged up and plugging holes left and right up front, ECU faces a big and physical defensive front from Temple. Defensive end Arnold Ebiketie paces the Owls with 42 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, while nose tackle Daniel Archibong is the most experienced player on the roster with 41 career starts.
Manny Walker, a graduate transfer from Wake Forest, is a new addition to the roster and figures to be a big piece of the puzzle at defensive end.
“It’s a huge concern,” ECU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said. “Three starters back from last year’s team, a transfer from Wake Forest, an older kid, so very experienced, very good defensive line. Really just like last year. The one young man did transfer to Miami and he’s tearing it up down there, too. We’re lucky he’s not here, but then the other guys are just so good. They’re so good inside, big, heavy guys, quick. I don’t care what line you had, you’d be concerned about this defensive line. They’ve had some injuries, they’ve had some guys out. I don’t know what the situation is this week, but I think all the defensive line are back.”
Two of the Temple Tuff players are along the Owls’ defensive line in Archibong and Ifeanyi Maijeh. Those two have combined for 33 tackles and have started every game of the 2020 season together in the trenches. Archibong is a graduate student and is listed at 6’6” 300 pounds while Maijeh is a slightly smaller 6’2” 285 pounds.
“Archibong is just an enormous kid and was a great player for them last year and I certainly remembered him,” Houston said. “I was disappointed to see him on the film again when we started seeing them this year. Great player, I expect to see him playing on Sundays here in the very near future. I think No. 9 (Maijeh) who was No. 88 last year — I don’t want to butcher his name — is a great player again this year. No. 17 (Ebiketie) is having another great year. Then they have the graduate transfer, No. 12 (Walker), at the other defensive end from Wake. They’re a formidable front four, there’s not a weakness there.”
Playing well up front is important to the Pirates every week, but after a couple of disappointing losses, bouncing back with a good game on Saturday could go a long way in the confidence department.
Both ECU and Temple have been forced to deal with just about everything 2020 has offered. The Pirates went through a COVID-19 outbreak and started a true freshman quarterback against Navy. At no point this season has ECU had 100% of its personnel available, and just like Temple, injuries have mounted on top of COVID-related issues.
With both teams sitting at 1-5 on the season and two games remaining on their respective schedules, Saturday may represent the best chance these programs get at winning a second game in 2020. Neither side is overlooking that fact as Saturday inches closer.
“You’re sitting here where you’ve had so much adversity and you keep competing every single day,” Houston said. “I think both clubs are going into this game Saturday, both of us are going to compete at a very high level, both teams are going to play very hard. One of us is going to come out with a big win and that’s going to be something to be celebrated in that locker room and just kind of put a boost of energy back into the players on that roster — whichever one of us comes away with it.”
ECU and Temple are scheduled to kick-off from Lincoln Financial Field at noon on Saturday. The game can be streamed on ESPN+.