COLUMN: Pirates Suffer Startling Loss to Owls

PHILADELPHIA — Temple (5-3, 3-2 AAC) surprised No. 23 ECU (6-2, 3-1 AAC) 20-10 Saturday in a game that was well within the Pirates' grasps.

Deep inside the cavernous corridors of Lincoln-Financial Field, a dejected group of Pirates walked into the visiting locker room following their 20-10 loss to Temple Saturday afternoon. One by one, black-and-white clad players disappeared into the room. No words were spoken; none really needed to be.

With plenty of rain and wind, the weather conditions at the home of the NFL’s Eagles were ugly, but they paled in comparison to No. 23 ECU’s sloppy performance against the Owls.

The Pirates (6-2, 3-1 American Athletic Conference) had seven fumbles and lost five of them, including one by senior Breon Allen that resulted in a 63-yard touchdown return by Owls’ cornerback Tavon Young to open the scoring. On the ensuing drive following the defensive score, Allen coughed it up again and Temple capitalized with a short touchdown drive to make it 14-0.

Then, there were the penalties. ECU was flagged for over 100 yards in penalties for the fourth time this season; committing 12 for 120 yards. When asked to explain what went wrong, one of the team’s leaders, junior linebacker Zeek Bigger, put it in simple terms.

“We didn’t play Pirate football.”

Although the Pirates' loss to the Owls does not by any means remove them from the conference championship discussion — In fact, ECU is probably still the favorite to win the league since Connecticut surprised UCF as well Saturday —their dreams of playing in an Access Bowl were likely washed away in the Philadelphia downpour.

What makes this loss sting worse for ECU is not its inevitable loss of a national ranking or even that it came at the hands of a Temple (5-3, 3-2 AAC) team that had not beaten a ranked opponent since 1998. Rather, it was that the Pirates outplayed the Owls in large stretches of the game.

ECU outgained Temple 432-135, while surpassing 200 yards in both passing and on the ground. Following Allen’s three first-half fumbles, junior Chris Hairston stepped in and rushed for a career-best 154 yards on 21 carries. But it wasn’t enough.

The Pirates now enter their third and final open date of the season, before having to hit the road again to face Cincinnati on a Thursday night. ECU has won both its previous games that followed open dates and bounced back to upset then-No. 17 ranked Virginia Tech after its only other loss this season at South Carolina.

In victory or defeat, ECU coach Ruffin McNeill has always expressed the importance of his team obeying the “24-hour rule,” which directs players and coaches to get away from everything football-related for a full 24 hours after a game.

McNeill said the rule has been loosely enforced at times. He recalls seeing many of his players on laptops and iPads already preparing for their next opponent in the immediate aftermath of ECU’s loss in Columbia, S.C. This time, however, McNeill says he will strongly encourage the Pirates to get away from the game — especially with the open date — in order to move forward.

“We will get away from it,” McNeill said. “Totally away from athletics until 5 o’clock tomorrow.”

The clock on the Pirates’ 24 hours began as they disappeared in a single-file line into the visiting locker room, where roughly 20 yards down the hall, they heard the roaring cheers from the victorious Owls.

One Pirate stopped briefly to watch the celebration, but then placed his helmet down and moved on.

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