Countdown to Kickoff: Temple

PHILADELPHIA, P.A. — ECU (6-1, 3-0 AAC) and Temple (4-3, 2-2 AAC) will meet for the first time in 19 years Saturday afternoon at Lincoln-Financial Field.

The last time the 23rd ranked Pirates lined up against a team with a winning record was their 70-41 thumping of North Carolina on Sep. 20.

Since then, ECU (6-1, 3-0 American Athletic Conference) has sputtered in stretches of its first three conference games — facing opponents with a combined record of 4-18 — but always resolved to play its best when it counted most and keep its dream season alive.

After losing back-to-back games at Houston and UCF, Temple (4-3, 2-2 AAC) returns to its shared home with the Philadelphia Eagles, Lincoln Financial Field, to host ECU as it seeks the program’s first victory against a ranked opponent since upsetting No. 14 Virginia Tech, 28-24, on the road in 1998. The Owls have never beat a ranked team at home in 25 tries.

“We have another tough road game this week at Temple,” fifth-year ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. "We know they’ll be focused and we’ll be focused as well. The competition is going to get better each week in this conference. One of the things we knew getting into this conference was the competition from top to bottom would be tough, so we expect that and look forward to the challenge.”

Due to the manner in which the Pirates won their last three games and their lack of “style points,” they slid in both the Associated Press and Coaches polls earlier in the week. Fortunately, when the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings were released Tuesday night, ECU’s 23rd ranking was higher than any non-“Power Five” team, which would grant them an invitation to an Access Bowl if the season ended today.

McNeill said he would wait and see how the new playoff format plays out before he creates an opinion about it. As for slipping in the polls, he could care less.

“A couple weeks ago, we didn’t even play and moved up two spots. That’s why I don’t focus on them,” said McNeill, laughing. “I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I am informed.”

During their stretch of supposed “unimpressive” victories, the Pirates outscored opponents 34-0 in the fourth quarter on their way to double-digit results in all three games.

“We’ve got a pretty calm group,” said offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. “I think regardless of how we’ve been playing up to that point, when we get into the the fourth quarter, I think our guys have done good job of making adjustments.

“I think these guys … have a sense when it’s very important to rise up and make plays, and we’ve been able to do that.”

On the flip side, Temple has been outscored 21-0 in the second half of its last two games. Dual-threat quarterback P.J. Walker has passed for 1,469 yards and 11 touchdowns this season, but is prone to making mistakes with his nine interceptions. Walker, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound sophomore, also leads the Owls in rushing touchdowns (3).

ECU’s secondary accounted for all three of Connecticut’s touchdowns last Thursday, including an 88-yard score that was made possible by a missed tackle. The threat of Walker running and extending plays will require a better performance by the Pirates’ corners if they are to earn a road win.

“You’ve got to mark (receivers) longer and you’ve got to play until the whistle blows,” said sophomore corner Dashawn Benton. “He’s very mobile. He’s an athlete and he can throw the ball when he wants to. We just got to contain him and play our game.”

In addition to Walker, the Owls have a stable of three running backs that receive the bulk of the carries. Sophomore Jahad Thomas leads the way with 334 yards, but has yet to rush for a touchdown. Senior receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick has hauled in five of the team’s 11 receiving touchdowns this season and team-best 30 receptions.

Although the Owls possess enough of a punch offensively to raise some concern, their strength truly lies on defense. Through seven games, Temple leads The American in five defensive categories: three downs and outs, fumble recoveries and red zone defense, which is second in the country to No. 1 Mississippi State in that specific department.

Junior linebacker Tyler Matakevich’s name could be found on the most of the national defensive award watch lists leading up to the season and his play has backed it up. He has amassed a team-best 59 tackles.

“Initially looking at them, they are not quite as big, maybe as sturdy as Connecticut was. But there probably a little more athleticism, especially up front,” Riley said. “It’s another group that is going to test you. There are a lot of good defenses in this league and they are one of them, and I think that’s a big reason why they are probably one of the more improved teams in the country right now.”

ECU’s standout freshman receiver Trevon Brown left last week’s game with a left knee injury and will not play against Temple. Brown’s classmate Terrell Green had his redshirt removed against UConn and is expected to be more involved in the offense as a result.

The Pirates lead the head-to-head series with the Owls 8-3, which includes a win gained by forfeit in 1986 because of the utilization of an ineligible player.

Television: ESPNews (Mike Corey, Ray Bentley), Radio: Pirate IMG Sports Network (Jeff Charles, Kevin Monroe, Marty Feurer), Kickoff time: 12 p.m.

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