Now the No. 21-ranked team in America, ECU (6-1, 3-0 AAC) will arrive in Philadelphia to face a Temple team (4-3, 2-2 AAC) in the midst of a two-game slide. Some might assume this would be an easy game for underdog Temple to get up for but, in fact, the Owls are a shaken team and trying to regain their confidence, head coach Matt Rhule said Tuesday during his weekly press conference at Edberg-Olson Hall. Rhule discussed the challenges his team will face against ECU and also addressed the up-and-down season for Temple’s starting quarterback.
ECU on tap
The Pirates toppled then-nationally ranked Virginia Tech on Sept. 13, 28-21, in a game that vaulted the Pirates into the national picture. ECU is on a five-game winning streak and climbed to as high as No. 18 in the Associated Press poll. In ECU, Temple will have what Rhule said will likely be the team’s final shot to upset a ranked opponent. Rhule couldn’t say for sure what he expects to get from his shaken team on the heels of two conference losses.
"It’s a pivotal moment for us,” Rhule said of the timing of ECU’s visit to Lincoln Financial Field. “(We’re) a football team that’s trying to figure out how to win and lose all the time and I think, even just being out there (at practice) today, we’re a little rattled. Our confidence is shaken.”
There really isn’t ever an ideal time for a shaken team like Temple to play ECU given the Pirates offensive efficiency. Through seven games, quarterback Shane Carden has 18 touchdown passes compared to just five interceptions and a grand total of 2,574 passing yards. Also a threat to run, Carden has carried 48 times for 105 net yards and three rushing scores — good enough for fifth among ECU rushers.
"He’s extremely accurate and he’s extremely competitive,” Rhule said of Carden. "I mean, you watch the Virginia Tech game — (Virginia Tech) is all-out blitzing him, hitting him underneath the chin with vicious hits and he’s standing in there and throwing the ball down the field. So, he’s unbelievably accurate, but he’s courageous, tough, he can beat you with his feet… He’s the complete package for them and he does it the right way."
The Pirates have three receivers — Justin Hardy, Isaiah Jones and Cam Worthy — with at least 23 catches and 496 receiving yards this season. Hardy is leading the receiving corps with 66 catches, six scores and an average of more than 111 yards receiving per game.
"They are a fast, fast, fast-paced offense,” Rhule said of ECU. "As fast as anyone in the country… They truly are a top-15, top-20 team."
P.J. Walker’s struggles
Rhule said that he hopes the moment isn’t too big for Temple players once kickoff rolls around on Saturday, but there’s cause for concern because the last two games certainly appeared to be more than the Owls could handle.
Chief among those players that appeared to lose their way after Temple’s 4-1 start to the season is quarterback P.J. Walker. Walker has struggled with fundamentals mightily in recent losses against Houston and Central Florida the last two weeks. A shaky start against UCF prompted his benching on Saturday. Rhule said the decision to bench Walker was not punitive, though. It was intended as a chance for Walker to muster what confidence he had left before re-entering the game, and the plan worked, too.
Walker led two long, although ultimately unsuccessful drives late in the UCF game. Still, those drives were marked improvements from his play against Houston and in the early-goings of the UCF game.
"I just felt like P.J., for two weeks now, is starting to do some uncharacteristic things,” Rhule said. "As talented as he is and as dynamic as he’s been, it’s his first little rough patch. He’s hearing everybody on the outside saying 'what’s going on?' So, he’s starting to question himself a little bit just in terms of just the way he’s looked out there…
"What do you do? You set him down for just a series or two. We put Connor (Reilly) out there who’s been waiting a long time to play. We put Connor out there and he played admirably. Put P.J. back out there and I thought, at that point, moved the ball better than he had. It’s not just P.J., it’s everybody.”