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WOODWARD: Second-half AAC challenge awaits Pirates

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East Carolina freshman receiver C.J. Johnson runs in the open field after a reception at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Thursday night. Temple won the game 27-17 for ECU to hold a 3-3 record at the halfway mark of its season.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, October 6, 2019

As Temple completed a 27-17 football win at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Thursday night, East Carolina officially reached the halfway point of its season with a 3-3 record.

The Pirates should aim to go 3-3 the rest of the way, which will be more of a challenge than its 3-3 record during the first six games under coach Mike Houston.

A final 6-6 mark would be a big accomplishment, and it’s a realistic goal, but it will require the Pirates to gut out some much-needed American Athletic Conference victories.

Finishing 6-6 after hosting Tulsa on Nov. 30 would double the win total of last year’s 3-9 record. Furthermore, it would equal ECU’s wins from 2017 and ’18 combined.

Like on Thursday night, when Temple was a favorite of 12 points and won by 10, this year has mainly gone as expected for the Pirates.

They are not a championship-caliber team — evidence by starting 0-2 in the AAC and scoring less than 20 points in each defeat — but they are not as bad as the product during the previous two seasons.

To this point, the Pirates have won the games they should in defeating two Football Championship Subdivision opponents and a Conference USA club. ECU also lost as expected at N.C. State and to a pair of proven American schools in Navy and Temple.

The 42-10 loss to Navy could have been an alarming setback, but the Pirates bounced back by steadily improving on defense since then, securing a breakthrough road victory as a slight underdog against Old Dominion and then being more competitive against Temple compared to the Navy matchup in Annapolis, Md.

The Holton Ahlers-to-C.J. Johnson connection for 100 total receiving yards and two touchdowns was East Carolina’s best bright spot against Temple, which beat ECU 49-6 last season but was required to play full-throttle for four quarters this year to put away the inspired and black-and-gold Pirates.

It’s notable that Ahlers is a sophomore and Johnson a freshman who can enhance the Pirates by continuing to develop into a consistent and bona fide playmaker.

Problems are glaring at times on the offensive line, and ECU still is very much in catch-up mode in this league, which Houston knows and is working to identify the most important problems to fix.

Temple is 26-7 since 2014 in American games. ECU is 7-27 during the same span.

The Pirates were an afterthought in the league by the end of the 2018 season, falling into a reputation that is going to take time and a sprinkle of breakthrough moments to rebuild.

If losses happen to UCF and Cincinnati as projected, that leaves ECU games against South Florida, SMU, Connecticut and Tulsa to complete Houston’s first season.

Optimism remains, and ECU has a decent shot to go 3-1 in those four contests. The Pirates will need to turn the opportunity to compete into proving they can win against their conference foes.

After East Carolina's recent down seasons and halfway through this one, that fear does not exist for most AAC teams when they come to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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