Entering the practice week ahead of an American Athletic Conference clash with a high-powered East Carolina University team, coach Matt Rhule said he and his coaching staff made the collective decision to emphasize defense and special teams in lieu of Temple’s next opponent.
And on Saturday, what began with a fumble return in the first quarter soon evolved into a turnover-laden upset of the No. 21-ranked team in the country.
The Owls helped force seven East Carolina fumbles — five for turnovers — en route to topping the Pirates 20-10 at Lincoln Financial Field.
“We got on the plane last week after the [34-14 loss to Central Florida last Saturday], and I think all of us were a little bit shell-shocked,” Rhule said. “As a staff, we made a decision to go back to doing what Temple is. Play good defense, special teams and run the football, and I think we did a good job doing that.”
Temple (5-3, 3-2 The American), coming off a pair of blowout conference losses to the University of Houston and Central Florida, recovered three East Carolina fumbles in the first half of a game that emulated the dreary, sloppy setting from the start.
Redshirt-junior defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike first forced a fumble that led to a 63-yard return down the left sideline for junior Tavon Young to open the scoring midway through the quarter.
Redshirt-junior linebacker Nate D. Smith then found himself right in the middle of East Carolina’s ensuing drive, forcing another fumble on the Pirates’ 40-yard line that eventually set up a one-yard rushing score for senior running back Kenny Harper with 2 minutes, 50 seconds left in the first period.
“Our defense did one heck of a job out there,” junior linebacker Tyler Matakevich said. “Everyone did their job. … [Defensive coordinator Phil Snow] told us from the very beginning, ‘This is going to be a defensive game and we’re going to need to step up.’ Everybody rose to the occasion.”
Harper added a second score when he ran the ball in from two yards out with 4:36 left in the third quarter. His pair of rushing touchdowns pushed his season total to four.
Outside of Harper’s two touchdowns, though, the Owls’ rushing attack continued its recent struggles on the ground from the outset. The running game mustered 13 yards on 13 carries in the first half, before finishing with 65 total yards on the ground off 37 touches.
Sophomore quarterback P.J. Walker threw for 70 yards on 7-of-19 passing, his longest strike being a 22-yard reception for freshman tight end Colin Thompson.
On the flip side, East Carolina’s Shane Carden completed 24 of 41 passes for 217 yards, while running back Chris Hairston rushed for a game-high 153 yards on 21 carries.
Temple’s defense sacked the Pirates’ sophomore four times, and forced a fumble for a turnover on the Owls’ 38-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
“When you try to force fumbles, you make fumbles,” Rhule said. “When you play with confidence, instead of just trying to get the guy down, you hit him a little extra harder. We played with energy.”
The Pirates (6-2, 3-1 The American) didn’t break through until the clock read 2:15 in the fourth quarter, when redshirt-freshman Marquez Grayson punched in the Pirates’ lone touchdown of the game on a two-yard run.
Overall, the Pirates amassed 432 total yards of offense, while Temple totaled 135, and accumulated 30 first downs compared to the Owls’ 10.
East Carolina’s five turnovers, though, paved the way for two Temple touchdowns in the first quarter. The game featured 11 total fumbles, with Temple recovering each of its four miscues.
“To be honest with you, some of the weather had something to with it,” Snow said. “It was a great day to play [East Carolina’s] offense.”
Praise Martin-Oguike forced two fumbles, including East Carolina’s first, which resulted in the 63-yard runback by Young for the game’s first touchdown … Junior Matt Ioannidis and Martin-Oguike registered 1.5 sacks each … Matakevich compiled a game-high 16 solo tackles in the game. The mark is his highest of the season, and increases his season total to 58 … The game’s announced attendance was 22,130 … When the Owls face Memphis at Lincoln Financial Field Friday at 7:30 p.m., they will be gunning for their sixth win, which would give the Owls bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2011-12 season. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.