GREENVILLE, N.C. – Credit someone at ESPN for scheduling this week’s Temple-East Carolina showdown in the American Athletic Conference. Historically, this one is a snoozer — primarily because of Temple. But here they are in late October, the Owls visiting ECU in a battle on ESPN’s Thursday night national stage for first place in the AAC East.
East Carolina has been a ranked program and holds a 5-1 record over its ACC neighbors the past three seasons, but this year the Pirates faced a makeover. They lost two record-breakers, quarterback Shane Carden and wide receiver Justin Hardy. That was one reason to be wary of a Thursday TV date.
Temple, of course, is Temple. You can never count on the Owls to have a successful season. But, one of the surprise stories of the year is the Philadelphia school’s unbeaten records at 6-0 overall and 3-0 in the East. The Owls beat Penn State in the season opener for the first time in 74 years.
East Carolina is only 4-3 overall but 2-1 in the East. The loss was a cross-division game with Navy, so the Pirates can control their destiny in the East.
As always, the Pirates prepared for conference play with a tough schedule. Their losses are all on the road to teams with a combined record of 15-4. Florida (6-1) is ranked No. 13, Navy (4-1) had received votes among “others” before losing to Notre Dame and BYU (5-2) was ranked as high as No. 19 before back-to-back defeats on the road to UCLA and Michigan.
“I think the games at Florida, at Navy and at BYU were tough tests, and how we handled those, I thought it came into play,” East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said at his Monday media briefing. “Each team progresses differently. Each team grows differently. I love this team and I’m looking forward to preparation tonight.”
The “tonight” reference meant changing the practice schedule to prepare for the Thursday evening ESPN atmosphere on the Greenville campus.
The Florida loss came in the second week of the season when the Pirates were adjusting to a sudden change at quarterback. When sophomore Kurt Benkert suffered a season-ending knee injury in fall camp, junior Blake Kemp was thrust into the starting role. He was shaky in a 28-20 season-opening win over Towson State, but he began to settle down. A pick-six Kemp threw was the difference in the Pirates’ 31-24 loss at the Swamp in Gainesville.
McNeill, who was spared quarterback decisions that last three years with Carden behind center, has found a way play Kemp and backup James Summers at the right times in a two-quarterback system (maybe Ohio State’s Urban Meyer called him for some advice with the Buckeyes’ improvement playing two quarterbacks last week). In Saturday’s win over Tulsa, Kemp, the starter, completed 8-of-12 passes for 78 yards without a touchdown or interception. They aren’t impressive numbers, but East Carolina led 10-0 by the time Summers entered the game in the second quarter.
Summers, a dual threat—unlike Kemp—completed 11-of-16 for 127 yards and one touchdown with one interception. He rushed 12 times for 44 net yards with a touchdown.
The different style of play forces added defensive work for the Pirates’ opponents.
“As a defensive coordinator, you have to prepare differently,” McNeill said. “I like the way both kids handle it. I like the way (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach) Dave Nichol is teaching those two kids. It’s really unique. There are a lot of ways to do it. We’ll use that to help with the next game plan strategy.”
Compounding the extra work is a short week. Temple beat winless Central Florida 30-16 last week to remain unbeaten. They also lose practice time by traveling. McNeill believes in not forcing too much work on his team to prepare for a short week. “I’m big on having clear minds,” he said. “Cloudy minds have slow legs and clear minds have fast legs. We have a fast football team, so we want their minds clear so we can play fast.”
He also tried to downplay a revenge motive, but the motivation is obvious for the Pirates.
A year ago, East Carolina was ranked No. 21 with records of 6-1 overall and 3-0 in AAC East play when the Pirates traveled to Temple. The Owls pulled off a 20-10 upset en route to a 6-6 record. East Carolina finished 8-5 with a bowl loss.
“I talk about getting better,” McNeill said. “Let’s play our best game our next game, but play our best game our last game of the year.”