Sophomore running back Keaton Mitchell

Sophomore running back Keaton Mitchell evades the ODU defender and tries for more yards at home.

East Carolina University football (7-5, 4-4 American Athletic Conference) defeated Temple University (3-9,1-7 AAC) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, finishing in a 49-46 victory for the Pirates after a slug fest between the two schools for the final game of the 2022 regular season on Nov. 26.

The Pirates received the ball to open the game. Junior wide receiver Jsi Hatfield set back to return the ball and brought it up near midfield led by good blocking to start ECU with positive field position. The Pirates looked to sophomore running back Keaton Mitchell to open the game with a short gain before throwing to junior wide receiver C.J. Johnson on a completion that put the Pirates one yard short of first down.

Coming off five consecutive games with 100 yards or more, the Pirates continued to feed Mitchell to get his production up early. Along with the consecutive 100+ yard games, Mitchell also leads the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 15+ yard runs.

Unable to convert on third down, Head Coach Mike Houston elected to punt which gave Temple their first possession on offense. The Owls were able to gain their first first down on the drive’s opening play. Temple continued to slice the Pirates through the air, finding first down gains between short runs and checkdown passes. ECU’s defense held strong before the Owls could cross midfield, forcing a punt on 4th & 8 near the Temple 40 yard line.

With the turnover, ECU got another chance to take the lead on offense. Pinned behind their own 10 yard line, the Pirates were unable to move the ball downfield and decided to punt on fourth down.

Temple’s freshman quarterback E.J. Warner identified the correct timing to line up passes to several of his receivers for first downs on quick throws. The Owls found themselves in the red zone quickly, lining up a second down from ECU’s one yard line. The Pirates found glimpses of the identity that the defense created all season, bending but refusing the break at the goal line.

The Owls were unable to punch in the ball for the score and were driven backwards which led to a fourth down kick to give Temple the first score of the game and the lead at 3-0.

Following kickoff, ECU regained possession of the ball and opened their drive as they did with the two previous, handing the ball off to Mitchell for a first down carry. On 2nd & 3, the Pirates looked to Mitchell again who was able to achieve the team’s first first down with a carry on the ground.

The Pirates kept the ball on the ground, only throwing once in the drive, which put Mitchell in the position to score on a big run from midfield led by solid blocking. The 49 yard touchdown run gave ECU the lead at 7-3 following the converted extra point by freshman placekicker Andrew Conrad.

With six carries for 63 yards, Mitchell was well on his way to his sixth consecutive 100 yard game. The touchdown was also his 11th on the season.

Temple began its next drive with difficulties moving downfield, but that all changed when the Owl’s Warner found a receiver deep downfield to flip the field and put Temple at ECU’s 25 yard line. Though facing third down twice, Temple kept the drive alive with conversions that brought the team to similar territory as the last drive. This time, however, Warner was able to find his man to create Temple’s first touchdown and retake the lead at 10-7.

Mitchell continued to be the workhorse for the Pirates, who created a nine yard gain on first down before gaining 22 on the next play. With one more carry on the next first down, Mitchell eclipsed 100 yards to create his sixth 100 yard rushing game, a school record.

With the ground game rolling, the Pirates were able to set up in Temple’s red zone which allowed senior quarterback Holton Ahlers to find graduate student Isaiah Winstead in the corner of the endzone after Winstead burned his man in coverage. The second quarter score gave ECU the lead once more at 14-10.

Temple looked like it was not going to be able to respond early in the drive, but after fumbling his first third down snap, Warner was able to pick up the ball and find a receiver for a first down that kept the drive alive. Shortly after, the Owls set up a pitch and catch that was caught in the end zone for the team’s next score, flipping the lead once more as Temple pushed ahead 17-14.

ECU did not get a drive to respond as Hatfield brought the kickoff 97 yards to the house for the score. The last Temple defender ran into the back of the official, giving Hatfield the necessary space to put ECU ahead 21-17. The kickoff return was ECU’s first of the season.

After giving up the kickoff return touchdown, the Owls returned to offense and picked up where the aerial offense left off. Around midfield, ECU’s defense knocked back to back screen passes backwards to bring up 3rd & 16. Temple’s Warner kept his eyes downfield, but with no one open, he dumped the ball short to bring up 4th & 9.

Temple’s punt sailed into the back of the endzone for a touchback to put ECU’s offense on its own 25 yard line. This drive was the first time that Mitchell did not carry the ball to open, instead Ahlers found Winstead for a short completion. Winstead found himself in the offense once again shortly, however.

A handoff between Ahlers and Mitchell was botched which led to a fumble, but the tandem were able to reconnect with a pass that found Mitchell on the outside. From scrimmage, Mitchell turned on the jets and carried the ball 73 yards for the touchdown. After starting the game with two three and outs, ECU completed a touchdown on each of the next four drives to push ECU’s lead to 28-17.

The Owls responded with a four down drive, but seeing the need to score, they elected to go for it on fourth down. The pass was incomplete, but a foul gave Temple a new set of downs. The conversion was the break that the Owls needed to create big aerial gains on the next three plays that put Temple on ECU’s 20 yard line.

Temple’s Warner was able to find his man from the 20 for another Temple touchdown that trimmed ECU’s lead to 28-24 with 1:22 left in the first half of regulation.

Hatfield was set to return the kickoff once again and with one man to beat, drove the ball to ECU’s 45 yard line before he was tackled. With the clock running under a minute, ECU took their time passing through the air to limit Temple’s ability to get another chance. With 14 seconds remaining and a timeout available, Ahlers threw back to back incompletions to Winstead and junior wide receiver C.J. Johnson in tight coverage.

The Pirates were forced to settle for the 29 yard field goal attempt, but missed with a botched kick from Conrad. The missed kick led to halftime, where ECU carried a 28-24 lead. Temple would open with possession in the second half.

Temple opened the second half with a long way to go as the kickoff returner elected to bring the ball out which cost him 10 yards as the Owls started their drive from their own 13 yard line. The Owls pushed the ball to where it should have started using all three downs to bring possession up to the 25 yard line.

On the next first down, Temple’s Warner had time and space as he rolled out right to find a receiver. ECU’s junior cornerback Malik Fleming found Warner’s ball in the air for the first turnover of the game with a return that placed ECU at Temple’s 20 yard line.

Mitchell began the Pirates’ drive with a five yard gain on the short field. Ahlers used second down to fake a handoff to Mitchell before finding junior wide receiver Jaylen Johnson for the first down in Temple territory from the eight yard line. The Pirates scored on the next play as Mitchell weaved between the offensive line untouched to float into the endzone for the score. The one and a half minute drive for ECU pushed its lead to 35-24.

Warner and the Owls returned to offense after the freshman’s 12th interception of the season. Temple began with advanced field position after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty gave the offense an extra 15 yards on the return. Sophomore linebacker Mike Edwards III pushed over a player from Temple which resulted in chirping from both sides as the two players locked face masks. After being separated by the officials, the game continued without ejections.

As one of the more disciplined teams in college football, ECU was losing the penalty differential through two and a half quarters. Temple’s Warner found his favorite target in the game, redshirt junior Amad Anderson Jr., once again for a big gain down the middle to put the Owls within ECU’s 20 yard line.

The Owls were able to take the field position forward for the score, chopping the Pirate lead to 35-30. The team attempted to try for two points, but after a false start penalty set the team back, Temple was forced to kick the extra point to bring the score to 35-31.

Following kickoff, ECU’s offense stayed persistent on the legs of Mitchell who carried the first down six yards before weaving outside on second down to bring ECU to 3rd & 3. This time the Pirates converted with a pass from Ahlers to C.J. Johnson for a big chunk play on the 20 yard completion.

After another run from Mitchell, Ahlers found Hatfield for another 28 yard gain that brought the Pirates to Temple’s six yard line. Mitchell pushed his way up to the two yard line before bouncing out to the outside for another touchdown run on third down. Following the extra point, ECU grew its lead to 42-31.

Once more, the Owls took to offense and began to move the ball early. Temple’s Warner found a receiver on a flea flicker that pushed the team into ECU’s territory instead of trying to scramble. On 1st & 10 from ECU’s 40, Warner took a shot downfield that was caught and trotted into the endzone to cut the Pirate lead to 42-37 before electing to go for the two point conversion. The two point conversion was successful, which made the lead even narrower at 42-39.

With four minutes remaining in the third quarter, Temple’s Warner sat at 428 passing yards for four touchdowns on 35/45 passing.

ECU returned to offense after a short, high kickoff placed the team on its own 31 yard line. For the first time in the game, Mitchell was stuffed at the line of scrimmage on the first play for no gain. After a second down catch for five yards, Ahlers took a shot deep for C.J. Johnson. The receiver had no opportunity to catch the ball but after a flag was thrown, the officials took it back to bring the fourth down around.

Facing 4th & 6, Coach Houston continued to speak with the official as the Pirates punted away the ball. ESPN’s broadcasters also said that they were unsure of why the flag was picked up.

Following the questionable decision, ECU’s defense stepped up to force a three and out after giving the ball away on the possession prior. Temple punted with 34 seconds remaining in the third quarter and pinned the ball at ECU’s 12 yard line.

Mitchell ran the ball to the outside on first down before the clock ran out on the third quarter. He continued to run the ball downfield in chunks, creating first down after first down for the Pirates. When the Pirates returned to the air, it was Winstead who advanced the ball past midfield before catching another pass on the next play from scrimmage.

Ahlers began to find rhythm through the air, finding C.J. Johnson to put ECU at Temple’s 31 yard line. Things slowed down for the Pirates, who faced a 3rd & 14 after rolling early. Ahlers found Winstead short of the first down, but Coach Houston elected to go for it on 4th & 6 from Temple’s 27 yard line. Temple took a timeout as the countdown clock expired, their second of the second half, before ECU could get the fourth down play off.

The pass was incomplete as the ball was knocked from C.J. Johnson’s hand to bring Temple back to offense with the opportunity to take the lead for the first time in a long time. ECU’s defense once again held strong, creating a tipped pass and forcing a dropped pass on the first two plays from Temple.

Facing 3rd & 10, Temple’s Anderson cut a curl route that allowed the receiver to shoot upfield for the first down and much more. Warner took another shot downfield on the next first down, but overthrew his receiver just enough to prevent the touchdown.

The Pirate defense forced another third down, but Temple was able to convert up to ECU’s 18 yard line, putting the Owls dangerously close to retaking the lead. Temple did exactly that on the next play with a touchdown pass that gave the Owls a 46-42 advantage with 6:19 left in the fourth quarter.

Pressure began to mount against the Pirates, down four points with less than a half of play to go. Temple’s defense stood strong against the pass, leading to 3rd & 8 on the Pirates’ opening set of downs. The Owls created a sack on third down that pushed ECU back to 4th & 16, forcing a punt from the Pirates.

Temple’s aerial attack kept rolling. Already over 500 yards passing, Temple’s Warner continued to create pass after pass. Around midfield, ECU pushed Temple to another third down before taking a timeout. After the break, the Owls attempted a pass that was batted down by the Pirate defender to bring up fourth down.

With only one yard to gain, Temple elected to go for it. Coach Houston called ECU’s second timeout of the half after seeing an empty backfield set for the Owls. Following the timeout, Temple elected to punt with 3:16 remaining. The punt spotted the ball at ECU’s 11 yard line.

ECU began their drive with a swing pass to Mitchell before Ahlers found Winstead on a first down catch that gave the Pirates some room to breathe. With 2:25 remaining, Ahlers kept his pace on the next set of downs. He looked to his receiver, but an incompletion stopped the clock for the Pirates.

On 2nd & 10, Ahlers took a shot deep that sailed over Winstead’s head. Winstead looked for the flag after being held early in his route, but there was no flag to be found. Now facing third down with ten yards to gain, the offense looked to Mitchell who bounced outside for a gain of 22 yards.

The run from Mitchell tied his career high rushing yards, with 222 on 27 attempts. The first time Mitchell ran for 222 yards was against Tulane University in 2021.

Finding new life offensively, the Pirates completed a pass to Winstead before connecting with Jaylen Johnson for a 38 yard touchdown. Following the extra point, ECU secured the lead once more at 49-46 with 1:11 left in the game. The eight play, 89 yard drive burned the clock enough to place the pressure on Temple’s offense now.

With minimal time on the clock, Temple created a five yard pass on first down before the Pirates defense forced three straight incompletions to turn the ball over which allowed Ahlers to kneel down for the final regular season play of his collegiate career.

The 49-46 victory was the most points between two teams all-time and evened the all-time series between the two teams at nine wins a piece. Ahlers finished the game with 314 yards and three touchdowns on 67% passing.

Mitchell had a career day, tying his single game rushing yard record with 222 along with his three rushing touchdowns. With the yards on the ground, he was also responsible for creating 78 yards and a touchdown through the air on two carries.

The game could not have been won without the help of every hand in ECU’s receiving core. Winstead, Jaylen Johnson, C.J. Johnson and Hatfield all created more than 33 yards each with Winstead and Jaylen Johnson also creating touchdown grabs.

Defensively, the interception was crucial in an otherwise lackluster performance. Temple’s Warner finished the game 45/63 passing with 527 yards and five touchdown passes. Five Owl receivers finished the game with more than 10 yards per reception against the Pirate defense. However, when it mattered most, ECU clamped down defensively and stifled an otherwise dominant passing game.

With the 2022 regular season in the books, the Pirates will play one more game before the team says goodbye to many starters for good, including the school and conference’s all time leader in completions, yards and touchdowns in fifth year starter Ahlers along with long time defensive anchor senior linebacker Miles Berry and new faces such as graduate student receiver Winstead.

ECU will participate in a bowl game after becoming eligible for the second consecutive season for the first time since 2014. Also for the second consecutive season since 2014, the Pirates finish the regular season with a winning record. The date, opponent and bowl game has yet to be selected, though it is likely that the Pirates will face an opponent from the Athletic Coastal Conference.

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