East Carolina

ECU football heads into Thursday night game above .500 for the first time since 2016

East Carolina football is back on the ESPN Thursday night game radar after a three-year blackout. The Pirates are eagerly promoting their own definition of a blackout, telling fans to dress for a “Paint It Black” night.

That includes the players wearing all-black uniforms when the Pirates (3-2, 0-1 AAC East) host Temple (3-1, 0-0 AAC East) with an 8 p.m. kickoff at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

“I’ve never played in a Thursday night game,” said senior defensive end Kendall Futrell, who is coming off a career-best performance with seven tackles, three sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss in last week’s win at Old Dominion. “It will be a big crowd – a “black out” crowd – and we’re wearing black. It feels special.”

Here are five things to know about ECU heading into its game against the Owls:

1. ECU used to be an AAC favorite on Thursdays

Before their past three 3-9 seasons under former coach Scottie Montgomery, the Pirates were Thursday favorites during their first two years as AAC members. They played five Thursday games and one Friday Thanksgiving weekend contest under former coach Ruffin McNeill.

In 2014, ECU played three Thursday night games — a home win against UConn and losses to UCF at home and Cincinnati on the road. The Pirates had one Friday night game, which they won, at Tulsa. In 2015, ECU’s Thursday games were a loss to Temple at home and a win at UCF.

New coach Mike Houston, expressed a sense of growing optimism on campus.

“I think you will see our student body rally around this,” he said. “We need them. We want The Boneyard (student section) packed on Thursday night. It’s time for all of us to come together and support our football program.”

2. Resurfacing above .500

The Pirates won 24-21 at Old Dominion last week to climb above .500 for the first time since they had a 2-1 record in 2016. However, they went on to lose eight of the next nine games and finish with a 3-9 record.

The last time ECU had a winning record five games into the season was in 2015. That 3-2 start was followed by fives losses in seven games for a 5-7 record.

“There are a lot of smiles on campus and around the facility,” said sophomore wide receiver Blake Proehl, who took a pass 72 yards for a touchdown last week. “We’re excited for Thursday. It brings a lot of energy knowing everybody is watching -- prime time, ESPN on Thursday night. It something you dream about playing football.”

3. Old Dominion confidence boost

Thursday’s national TV audience won’t give ECU much credit for beating Old Dominion (1-3 CUSA) last Saturday.. But the Monarchs, who were a three-point favorite over the Pirates, had ECU’s attention from testing ACC schools.

In 2018, ODU beat then-No. 13-ranked Virginia Tech, 49-35. This season, a week before facing ECU, the Monarchs led No. 21 Virginia 17-7 at halftime but lost 28-17.

“It may not be a huge achievement to someone outside of our locker room, but to these kids, having that success is important,” Houston said. “Number one, I think that was a motivating factor last week and it’s something giving them confidence this week.”

4. Temple as a physical test

The Pirates are three wins shy of bowl eligibility for the first time since 2014, but ECU still has to show it can compete physically with AAC schools other than UConn. Of ECU’s four conference wins the last three seasons, three were against the Huskies.

Temple has thumped ECU three straight years, winning 49-6 last season in Philadelphia, and the two previous seasons, 34-10 and 30-17.

5. Quarterback questions

Although sophomore starting quarterback Holton Ahlers completed a 72-yard touchdown pass to Proehl and a 5-yard scoring toss to senior tight end Anthony Watley, he was only 8-of-21 for 202 yards with two interceptions.

ECU began the year focused on Ahlers running less to reduce hits on him; that concern has increased with redshirt junior Reid Herring transferring two weeks ago. His departure elevated Bryan Gagg, a 6-3, 210-pound true freshman from Sarasota, Fla., from the scout team to taking reps as the No. 2 quarterback.

Gagg enrolled in January and began learning the offense in spring football, and had an impressive spring game.

“When you see him out there on the practice field, the thing I like most about him is he has those leadership characteristics that you want in the quarterback position,” Houston said. “I think you’re going to see him be more and more prepared as we go throughout the year.”

Temple at ECU

When: 8 p.m., Thursday

Where: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Greenville

Watch: ESPN

Listen: WNCT-107.9, WRHD-94.3 Greenville; WCMC-99.9 Raleigh; WBCN-1660 Charlotte