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GAMEDAY: Struggling Pirates host Owls

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East Carolina linebacker Cannon Gibbs (33) last week against South Florida.

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By NATHAN SUMMERS
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The worst offense in the American Athletic Conference is in Greenville today to see if it can right itself against the league's worst defense, and vice versa, when Temple visits East Carolina at noon.

A couple of teams with just three wins in a combined 10 games will see what happens when two negative forces collide when Temple has the football.

The Owls (2-3, 0-2 AAC) have the opposite predicament as the Pirates. Their season has been defined so far by an offense that is producing a league-worst 295 total yards per game for first-year head coach Geoff Collins.

Although the Owls already have won consecutive games this season — something the Pirates have not had since the start of last season — those wins came against lowly Villanova and Massachusetts, and were not convincing. Since then, the visitors from Philadelphia have lost consecutively to South Florida and Houston.

If misery loves company, the Owls will be welcomed by the Pirates (1-4, 1-1) today in the wake of last week's 61-31 home thrashing at the hands of the same Bulls. In that game, the Pirates and graduate transfer quarterback Thomas Sirk continued to showcase a potent offense, but the AAC's worst defense allowed 575 yards and four unanswered scores in the second half to cement their first league loss.

The Pirates, allowing 615.8 yards per outing, rank last in the nation in that regard entering today's kickoff.

Once again, the main motivation for both teams today is another chance to find a new direction.

“We're just motivated to get another conference win. That's what our motivation is right now,” second-year ECU coach Scottie Montgomery said. “We've talked about the conference a lot. This conference is changing and you can see it all over the conference. There is some transitioning in staffs that always changes some of the ways guys are playing, and the schemes.”

Four losses in five games has raised plenty of questions both outside and within the ECU team, which has not endured a losing stretch of this magnitude in more than 10 years.

The team appears to have a more developing identity than one already in place as the season's midpoint comes today.

“I think the one person that is vocal is probably Thomas Sirk,” Montgomery said of his team's perceived lack of leadership, an issue raised by senior tight end Stephen Baggett after ECU spent much of the USF loss going toe-to-toe with the unbeaten Bulls but never forging a tie thanks to a defense that simply stopped getting stops. “I think Thomas had to get a little bit more comfortable with people. I think that there is probably some conversations between Baggett and Thomas Sirk and other people on the team that they do need some vocal leadership, especially when they feel like they have a chance to be pretty good at certain spots.

“We do need a little bit more of that, and I'm sure that will grow as the season continues.”

Sirk will be back at it today. He enters the game on the heels of his best rushing effort as a Pirate and has taken over the team lead with 43 carries for 159 yards and two touchdowns in four game appearances to go with his 1,129 pass yards for eight TDs versus six interceptions.

The former Duke starter proved to be a remedy in the run, but ECU will still need a rescue from one of its tailbacks to sustain success. Montgomery said last week he would prefer to keep involving as many as four of his main backs in the rush, but recently it has been mostly grad transfer Tyshon Dye (34-136), sophomore Hussein Howe (28-111-1) and freshman and developing short-yardage and pass-blocking specialist Darius Pinnix (18-31-1).

A big season for senior wide receiver Davon Grayson also continued to develop with the receiver going over 100 yards for the second straight week and catching a TD pass for the third week running. He stands with a team-high 29 receptions, 495 yards and five scores.

Behind him is a strong trio led by junior Trevon Brown (21-365-2) and senior cogs Quay Johnson (18-193) and Jimmy Williams (13-184-1).

Transition has been the trend for Temple, from the loss of hugely successful coach Matt Rhule to Baylor to the departure of a good deal of the offensive and defensive personnel that helped make the Owls' recent run to the AAC championship possible.

Now, the Owls are lacking bite on offense, ranking last in the American in rushing (84.2 yards per game) and scoring (16.2 pts./game).

Junior tailback Ryquell Armstead will be the primary focus of the ECU defense today, as his 243 yards in five games is more than half of his team's season total, though he and junior David Hood (108 yds.) have both been kept out of the end zone.

Sophomore quarterback Logan Marchi also exemplifies his team's struggles, though he has connected for six touchdown passes on 981 yards despite six picks thrown. Temple boasts a trio of talented pass-catchers in sophomore Isaiah Wright (team-high 15 receptions, 247 yds., TD), senior Adonis Jennings (14-220-1) and senior Keith Kirkwood (13-200-2).

The ECU defense that has faced considerable challenges in Xs and Os on the field also continues to battle injuries. Junior cornerback Corey Seargent (12 tackles in three games) should make his return after missing the last two games, but sophomore nickel safety Tim Irvin (20 tackles in three games) remained in question this week and former starting senior inside linebacker Ray Tillman remains shelved with a wrist injury.

That problem has largely been solved, however, as junior college transfer Cannon Gibbs (32 tackles) has proven a capable counterpart for senior tackles leader Jordan Williams (49 tackles, tackle for loss). The injury-riddled secondary will keep riding grad transfer safety Korrin Wiggins (41 tackles, INT), senior safety Bobby Fulp (31 tackles, INT) and former walk-on cornerback Devon Sutton (27 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, two pass breakups, forced fumble, fumble recovery) for consistency.

Up front, senior end Kiante Anderson continues his memorable season against the odds with 23 tackles and team-highs in tackles for loss (five), sacks (3.5) and QB hurries (four). Interior lineman and JUCO transfer Tyree Owens (18 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 0.5 sacks) has also been a playmaker.

On defense, Temple has survived some tight games but also has succumbed to big plays the way the Pirates have.

The primary tacklers in the unit are junior safety Delvon Randall (40 tackles, three TFLs, sack, INT) and sophomore linebackers Chapelle Russell (37 tackles, 2.5 TFLs) and Sam Franklin (21 tackles, two sacks, three PBs) and senior cornerback Mike Jones (20 tackles, INT, team-high four PBs).

Penetration at the line of scrimmage remains a strong suit for the Owls, who have gotten results from ends Quincy Roche (17 tackles, team-high 6.5 TFLs and four sacks), a freshman, and seniors Sharif Finch (16 tackles, six TFLs, two sacks) and Jacob Martin (eight tackles, three sacks), along with sophomore linebacker Shaun Bradley (24 tackles, four TFLs, sack).

ECU leads the all-time series, 8-6, though the Owls have won the last three meetings, two of them with serious AAC East Division ramifications.

Last season's 37-10 loss in Philly was a mere final chapter in a 3-9 campaign for the Pirates, but a 20-10 setback in the Pennsylvania cold in 2014 and a 24-14 setback in '15 were both pivotal ECU losses.

Contact Nathan Summers at nsummers@reflector.com, 252-329-9595 and follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.

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