It was an imperfect storm. Rain, fumbles and penalties all swirled together to cast doom and gloom down on East Carolina on Saturday, as it fell 20-10 to Temple at Lincoln Financial Field. It was a defeat that all but washed away the Pirates hopes of representing the Group of Five in a New Year’s Day bowl game.
It seemed so promising just a few short days ago for the Pirates. East Carolina (6-2, 3-1 AAC) was ranked 23rd in the first-ever College Football Playoff Poll, giving it the inside track over teams like Marshall (8-0 C-USA) and Colorado State (8-1, MWC) to land one of the NCAA’s premier bowl games.
On Saturday, ECU shifted from the driver’s seat to the backseat, as 120 penalty yards and five lost fumbles caused the Pirates to lose their grip on their postseason fate.
It was a truth that seemed like a hard pill to swallow for East Carolina fifth-year coach Ruffin McNeill.
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“We have a lot of season left,” McNeill said after the game. “We still control our own destiny and we’ll approach it like that.”
But do they? On Sunday, ECU, who was previously ranked No. 21, fell out of the AP Poll for the first time in six weeks and didn’t receive a single Top 25 vote, while the Thundering Herd galloped to No. 23 and Colorado State moved up to No. 26.
“Like I told the team, I don’t coach for rankings and I never have,” McNeill said. “We can never control how we’re chosen in the rankings, but the season’s not over. We have games left and we can still accomplish a lot.’
McNeill is not wrong. The season is far from over, but barring a Marshall mishap or a Colorado State slip-up, ECU’s dream of representing the Group of Five has gone bouncing out of its grasp like so many fumbles on Saturday.
The Pirates got off on the wrong foot against Temple and never regained their balance, as running back Breon Allen fumbled twice on their first two possessions. The second one resulted in a 63-yard touchdown by Tavon Young to put ECU in a 7-0 hole early. East Carolina fumbled seven times, matching its total for the season.
“Turning the ball over too much, that’s not us,” McNeill said.
While the turnovers were a new issue, the excessive penalties were not. ECU racked up 12 flags for a total of 120 yards, making it the fourth time in eight games it has passed the century mark.
“The penalty situation keeps haunting us,” McNeill said.
All is not lost for the Pirates, however. With a 3-1 conference record, ECU stands locked in a five-way tie for first place in the AAC with Houston, Memphis, Cincinnati and Central Florida.
The Pirates, who have their third and final bye of the season this week, will play at Cincinnati on Nov. 13, and end the season hosting Central Florida. If ECU can manage to win out its schedule, a conference title is well within reach.
“At the beginning of the year our goal wasn’t to get ranked,” McNeill said. “Our goal was to win the conference. That’s still in sight.”