Gameday Preview: ECU
At a Glance
ECU at Temple
Saturday, Nov. 21
Noon, Lincoln Financial Field
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic
Temple - Rod Carey
Career Record: 61-40 (second season at Temple)
ECU - Mike Houston
Career Record: 85-39 (second season at ECU)
WR Blake Snead
WHEN TEMPLE IS ON OFFENSE
Under center, Temple will start a true freshman at quarterback for the first time since 2013.
Matt Duncan has assumed the starting role now that Re-al Micthell has been officially ruled out for the season. The Owls are down to Duncan and true freshman walk-on Kamal Gray, with Anthony Russo sidelined until next Monday while in the team’s COVID protocol and Trad Beatty recovering from a concussion he suffered after taking a knee to the head in Temple’s loss against SMU.
Against UCF, Duncan was given just two nonconsecutive drives. The Summerville, South Carolina native went 0-2 passing while scrambling for eight yards for a first down, which resulted in a fiery response. Temple will need that level of energy from Duncan, come Saturday.
Even behind a makeshift offensive line, Temple’s running backs are hitting their holes hard and running effectively. Led by Tayvon Ruley, the former walk-on has made the most of his opportunity as the team’s primary back. Ruley had 90 yards on 23 carries in Temple’s loss against UCF, but he wasn’t the only player out of Temple’s backfield, who showed flashes. Kyle Dobbins, who is often referred to as a “home run hitter,” had 34 yards on four carries, averaging 8.5 yards per carry, while breaking off a career-long run of 16 yards this past Saturday. In addition, redshirt freshman Edward Saydee and Onasis Neely accounted for 43 yards on nine carries, with Neely scoring the first touchdown of his collegiate career.
“I like the way that they’re running behind their pads,” Carey said Monday. “They all bring a little something. Dobbins is probably the most explosive, Onasis is probably the most downhill, Tayvon has really good hips and Saydee is one of those guys that’s just a worker and keeps working his way past everybody. They all have unique gifts. I’d like somebody to really jump up and kind of assume that role. Tayvon has that right now, but I think there’s great competition there.”
Against the run, ECU is allowing opposing rushers to rush for 228.9 yards per game, which ranks 112th in the nation and 10th in The American. Last time out against Cincinnati, the Pirates allowed seven different ball carriers to run for a total of 299 yards on 32 carries and four touchdowns.
It’s rather obvious that Temple hasn’t gotten the type of production out of its offensive line that it would have hoped for. While there have been injuries and multiple players on the Owls’ two-deep who are currently in the COVID protocol like Griffin Sestili, Leon Pinto and Victor Stoffel, the play of the offensive line just has to be better. Grad transfer C.J. Perez has since stepped up following Carey’s comments about Sestili “smelling blood in the water.” Perez is one of nine centers in the FBS to have blocked on 215 or more passes this season and allowed five QB pressures or less.
Even with Perez’s play, the Owls still have a lot of moving pieces upfront. Vincent Picozzi has yet to find a permanent home this season, while Isaac Moore has failed to be a consistent fixture on the left side. Michael Niese has held his own at right tackle, but he’s currently sidelined with an injury and Carey didn’t seem too optimistic about his prospects for playing Saturday. As for Adam Klein and Joseph Hooper, they’ve both been moved in and out of the lineup and were sidelined for the majority of Temple’s loss against UCF.
To make life easier for Duncan, Temple may want to get the ball to its playmakers in Branden Mack and Jadan Blue. Mack has owned the Pirates for the better part of his career, as he has 16 catches for 165 yards and a touchdown against them. As for Blue, he’s picked up where he left off last season and has been the Owls’ most dependable target in 2020. The redshirt junior wide receiver has 41 catches for 381 yards and five touchdown receptions on the season. Blue is averaging seven receptions per game, which is tied for the seventh-highest rate in the nation among qualified receivers who have played five or more games this season.
The Pirates are 1-6 for a reason; there’s not a lot of things they do particularly well on the defensive side of the ball. ECU’s defensive unit is ranked 114th in the FBS in total defense, allowing its opponents to average nearly 500 yards of total offense per game. Also, teams are scoring 39.7 points per game against ECU, which ranks 116th in the nation. A bright spot on defense for the Pirates is hard-hitting sophomore linebacker Jireh Wilson, who has recorded 52 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, three pass break-ups, a quarterback hit and two forced fumbles in seven games.
Regardless, first-year ECU defensive coordinator Blake Harrell’s unit will have their work cut out for them on Saturday against a true freshman quarterback.
"You kind of analyze him in the limited number of snaps he's taken this season, you go back and watch high school film, and analyze his strengths and weaknesses," Harrell said of Duncan. "Then you see who he compared to in the recent ball games for them. Is he more like Mitchell? Is he more like Russo? That sort of thing. Find plays they may cater to him and his strengths and abilities. Then just always keeping that maybe one of those other guys, somehow someway, shows up on Saturday. You always keep that in your back pocket. We've certainly prepared our kids for all of them, but our main focus has been on Matt Duncan and where we think they may go with their offense."
WHEN TEMPLE IS ON DEFENSE
Against UCF, Temple’s defense turned in its best performance of the season.
Obviously the final score wouldn’t indicate that, but defensive coordinator Jeff Knowles’ unit put forth a valiant effort, holding UCF scoreless in the second quarter. Carey believed Temple’s defense played good enough to win, still, the unit was put in a hole early on with back-to-back turnovers and the offense’s lack of rhythm made the defenses’ performance look worse than it actually was.
The defense is still dealing with it’s fair share of injuries. While Carey expects to get Jordan Magee back by the end of the week, the Owls do not anticipate cornerbacks Linwood Crump or Freddie Johnson being available Saturday. As far as Yvandy Rigby is concerned, Carey didn’t seem too optimistic about his prospects for returning from an ankle injury.
At the same time, Isaiah Graham-Mobley is still week-to-week with a hamstring injury and while Carey doesn’t anticipate the graduate linebacker will be ready for Saturday’s game, there is a better chance than there has been of Graham-Mobley suiting up against Cincinnati.
As for ECU’s offense, it's been relatively inconsistent this season.
The play of their junior quarterback Holton Ahlers has been maddening to say the least. Ahlers has thrown for 1,441 yards, averaging 240.2 passing yards per game, which ranks sixth in the conference. He also has 12 touchdown passes and eight interceptions.
“We played against [Ahlers] last year and we thought he had a bright future,” Carey said. “That certainly hasn’t produced wins, I’m sure, in the way [ECU head coach Mike Houston] has wanted it to. But you can see from my perspective how he has matured. He’s way more comfortable running this offense, he has a big-time arm, and he moves well, so it’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
In last season’s matchup against Temple, Ahlers completed 19 of 39 passes for 229 and two touchdown passes. He also had 11 rushes for 26 yards in a 27-17 loss for ECU.
Where the Pirates have seen some offensive success is on the ground. True freshman running back Rahjai Harris has made the biggest impact on the team’s offense, as he ranks sixth in the conference in rushing. On the season, he has 559 yards on 114 carries and four rushing touchdowns
Temple’s defense can take advantage of ECU’s carelessness with the football this season. They’ve given the ball away 17 times across seven games, which averages out to 2.4 turnovers per game. Ahlers is coming off a performance in which he went just 9 of 20 passing for 87 yards with three interceptions. In addition, fumbles have also been a bugaboo for an ECU ballclub, who’s seen Harris put the ball on the ground multiple times this season.
Temple’s defense has forced nine fumbles this season, which is the fifth most in the FBS and the most among teams that have played six games or less this season. The defense is averaging 1.5 fumble recoveries per game, which is the fifth-highest rate in the nation.
Getting after the quarterback will be a key to pulling off the upset for Temple’s defense. Redshirt junior defensive end Arnold Ebiketie has recorded a sack in four out of six games this season. Ebiketie currently ranks eighth in the AAC in sacks per game. While Temple can be happy with the level of production that Ebiketie has put together in Roche’s absence, the effort from the remainder of the defensive line hasn’t been good enough. Still, Houston isn’t taking Dan Archibong or Ifeanyi Maijeh for granted.
“I think it’s a concern, it was a concern last year and it’s basically the same guys,” Houston said of Temple’s defensive line. “Archibong is just an enormous kid and was a great player for them last year, certainly remembered him. I was disappointed to see him on the film again, when we started seeing him this year. [He’s] a great player and I expect to see him playing on Sunday’s here in the very near future.”
Houston added that Ebiketie and Manny Walker combined with Archibong and Maijeh round out to form a formidable front four and that Temple doesn’t have a weakness on its defensive front. He feels ECU will have its hands full come Saturday.