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Pirates look to take a big step vs. Owls

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Five games into the Mike Houston era, East Carolina has already matched its win total from each of the last three seasons.

But the Pirates will try to take another major step in laying the foundation of their rebuilding program on Thursday night against a team that’s been a serious thorn in the side since entering the American Athletic Conference.

ECU has never beaten Temple in AAC play, losing five consecutive games, including the last three seasons by a combined score of 120-26. The games during the Scottie Montgomery era were never competitive. And the Owls, while probably not known as a football juggernaut nationally, have been the league’s winningest team overall — even ahead of UCF — since the Pirates came into the AAC in 2014. 

The Owls experienced success under former coaches Matt Rhule and Geoff Collins in prior years, and are now led by first-year head coach Rod Carey, previously of Northern Illinois. Temple (3-1) enters its AAC opener in Thursday night’s primetime 8 p.m. matchup at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with wins over Maryland, Georgia Tech and Bucknell, and a surprising road loss to Buffalo. ECU is 3-2 with wins over Old Dominion, William & Mary and Gardner-Webb, and losses at American foe Navy and N.C. State of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“When you look at their roster, they’re older. They’re a big, very experienced football team,” Houston said. “A lot of skill and athleticism at the stand-up positions. It’s a program that’s consistently won at the highest level of anyone in our league over the history of the American Athletic Conference and one that’s been very good the past several years.”

East Carolina was coming off a home win versus Old Dominion last season with momentum when it made the trip north to Philadelphia with a 2-2 record. The Pirates fell behind 28-0 and lost 49-6, going 1-6 the rest of the season. The Temple game has served as a critical midseason contest for both programs the last two seasons. Both ended in lopsided Temple victories and sparked big seasons for the Owls. The Pirates, meanwhile, were not able to recover.

Pirate players feel like Thursday night is a chance to change that narrative, and show that things are indeed different under a new regime.

“It’s a big game, they’re a great team,” sophomore receiver Blake Proehl said. “We haven’t had too much success with them in the past, so I think it’s going to show exactly how much of a different team we are. 

“I remember them last year. They have some dogs. But that physicality is something we have to embrace and it’s something Coach Houston has instilled in us as well. So we’ve got to do the same thing right back.”

Temple went 7-1 in league play last season, with its only loss coming at UCF in a high-scoring affair. The Pirates went 1-7 in the American, defeating lowly Connecticut for its lone win. Thursday night will mark Temple’s first conference game under Carey. ECU is already 0-1 in league play with its 42-10 loss at the hands of Navy.

The Owls returned 14 starters from last year’s team, including seven on each side of the ball. Quarterback Anthony Russo threw for four touchdowns last season versus ECU. The defense is the strength of the team, bolstered by a strong front seven that’s paced by senior linebacker Shaun Bradley.

“There’s not a weakness there,” Houston said. “You look at offensively, defensively and special teams-wise, they fit together. Big physical defense that’s very sturdy against the run. Big, physical offense that can run the ball very well. Certainly, they can throw the ball and defend the pass well also. 

“They’re just a complete football team that looks like a veteran, older group. It’s what you want to look like.”

EXTRA INCENTIVES

As if playing in primetime on Thursday night in front of a national television audience on ESPN wasn’t enough to get the team excited for the game, the Pirates will also be debuting new all black uniforms as part of a “Paint it Black” theme put on by the marketing department. 

ECU fans are encouraged to wear black for the 8 p.m. kickoff. The new uniforms were revealed on social media Tuesday morning and the players will be wearing black uniforms for the first time since the 2017 season. 

“We don’t really get to wear it a lot, so whenever we get to put it on, it just feels like it’s something special,” senior defensive end Kendall Futrell said. “It just brings something different. I don’t know.”

Either way, Houston just wants his team to execute. The Pirates are coming off consecutive wins for the first time since early in the 2016 season.

“I told marketing about a month ago, I don’t care what color we wear,” Houston said. “I don’t care what logo we wear, just tell me what we’re wearing, and we’ll wear whatever. Our big concern is the play on the field with the Xs and Os and getting our guys ready to play. Do I think that stuff has an impact on recruiting? Do I think it has a little bit of an impact on the players? Certainly. I think all of them enjoy some of those things. I think our fans enjoy that stuff too.”

FIRST THURSDAY NIGHT SINCE 2015

For East Carolina’s players, this will the first time they have had the chance to participate in an ESPN Thursday Night Football game. The Pirates last played on Thursday night in 2015, when they lost to Temple at home in a close game and beat UCF on the road later in the same season.

“It brings a lot of energy, just knowing everybody in the world will be watching,” Proehl said. “Primetime on ESPN on Thursday night. It’s something that you dream about coming to play football. I know I dreamed about it as a kid, playing on Thursday night lights.”

HANDLING THE QUICK TURNAROUND

Both head coaches have mentioned the need this week to balance game preparation with rest given the fact each side will be coming off short turnarounds. 

East Carolina played a tight, physical game versus Old Dominion on the road in Norfolk this past Saturday, coming away with a hard-fought 24-21 win. Temple played an emotional game against former head coach Geoff Collins in a 24-2 win over Georgia Tech in Philadelphia. The Owls will travel to Greenville on Wednesday, which gives ECU an advantage of being able to stay at home and rest up a bit more.

“That’s a big advantage for us, being able to stay here and not having to go up there, that’s something that we need,” Proehl said. “It’s a short week. These are big practices for us. We’ve got to come out, even though we’re banged up, we’ve got to come out with that momentum.”

Neither coach is a stranger to short weeks. Carey faced them every now and then in the MAC as Northern Illinois’ head coach the last several years. Houston experienced some short weeks in the past as a coach elsewhere, too. While at James Madison last season, Hurricane Florence forced JMU to move its home opener against Robert Morris up to Thursday night on short notice. The Dukes won the game 73-7. JMU also played on a few Fridays after Saturday games in the FCS playoffs.

“We played a very physical football game on Saturday night,” Houston said. “We’ve got some bumps and bruises. It is what it is. Everybody in the country has got that. I think you’ve got to do a good job of managing that along with preparing your team. We had worked on and prepared for this week back during the summer as far as what kind of schedule you’re looking at. Certainly, during a compressed week, you’ve got to be smart with how you go out and prepare, so this week’s practice schedule will be a little bit different than it has been on a normal game week. I think we’ll have a group that takes the field on Thursday night that will be excited to play, and they’ll be excited about the opportunity.”

Once ECU gets through the game, the Pirates will have the weekend off and an open date in the week to follow before traveling to UCF on Oct. 19.

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