Temple’s What 2 Watch: Memphis
OWLS (8-2, 5-1 AAC) vs. NO. 21 TIGERS (8-2, 4-2 AAC) | PHILADELPHIA
LINCOLN FINANCIAL FIELD, TODAY, NOON, ESPNU, 97.5 FM THE FANATIC
Beating Penn State was a breakthrough for the program, and standing toe-to-toe with current College Football Playoff Rankings Top 4 Notre Dame before a national-TV audience was an eye-opening revelation for everyone, but, really, truthfully, this was the matchup that presented the Owls’ toughest test to date. Once Temple escaped Cincinnati more than two months ago with a hard-to-believe win against the American Athletic favorite Bearcats, the most obvious hurdle to reaching the inaugural conference title game – the team’s primary goal, with secondary ones certain to fall into place should that be met – was Memphis. A winner of seven straight, including a 16-13 decision right here 53 weeks ago, to close last season, it was poised for big things this season, and once Cincy, essentially, had been dethroned by the Owls, Memphis became the AAC’s top dog. To confirm that, it merely beat the Bearcats as well and then whipped up on an Ole Miss squad that previously had knocked Alabama off its No. 1 perch en route to claiming a spot as high as No. 15 in the national polls and No. 13 in the first CFP ranking of 2015 just three weeks ago. The Tigers, as much as any other team, including the feel-good-story Owls, drove the AAC’s name into the nation’s conscience. Like the Owls, though, an unbeaten season no longer is in the cards, as they’ve lost two straight following an 8-0 start, letting a winnable game late in the third quarter against Navy get out of hand and then just giving away a game they were dominating at Houston last week. In short, yeah, the luster may be off this matchup from what it could have been, considering both teams were unbeaten entering play the final day of last month. But the reality is, the importance of this contest is not a single smidgeon less for Temple now that they’re not. The outcome could affect every aspect of its season, from AAC championship appearance to quality of bowl to possible season-ending ranking.
2. Best offense they will face all year ... yeah, it is, and Owls better know it
Remember all that excitement over Temple putting 60 points on the board against Southern Methodist two weeks ago? Well, the Tigers have topped that this season. Twice. Not only that, in jumping out to that 8-0 start, they averaged 47.9 points per game, and did so without the help of defensive touchdowns or special teams touchdowns. No, this group is “old school” good – as in, no gimmicks, no fluky stuff, just roll up the yards and pile up the points. So good have they been that QB Paxton Lynch found himself in Heisman discussions – a lot – before that collapse against Navy two weeks ago. Lynch, actually, played pretty well in that one, throwing for 305 yards and a score, and did so last week, too (278 passing yards, two TDs). But turnovers plagued the Tigers in each game, and they finished a combined minus-5 over the course of action against the Midshipmen and Cougars. The 6-7 junior has been nothing short of brilliant this season in tossing for 3,200-plus yards and 21 TDs (against just 3 INTs). But he is hardly a one-man show as four backs have rushed for 260 yards or more and combined for 22 TDs, headed by Doroland Dorceus’ 565 yards and 8 TDs (for good measure, Lynch has added 235 and 2 of his own). The receiving corps includes five guys with 300 yards or more and eight with multiple TDs. Mose Frazier (56 catches, 659 yards) would be Lynch’s go-to guy and Anthony Miller (38, 607) his home-run hitter. Memphis is seventh in the country in total yardage per game (541) and sixth in scoring (43.7). The Owls’ D is coming off a three-game stretch in which it gave up an average of 473 yards and 36 points per game against far less explosive offenses.
3. Blitz, blitz, blitz ... and then blitz some more
It’s a catch-22, or catch-12 if you will when it comes to Lynch. Stay back and let him pick you apart. Or come after him and watch him beat you with quick decisions or his feet. For a spindly looking sort, the dude can move … fast. No so much cat-quick like, say, as the Owls were witness to last week in South Florida with the Bulls’ Quenton Flowers or even in practice with their own QB, P.J. Walker, but once Lynch starts moving the yards just get eclipsed in such easy fashion. The feeling here, the gut instinct, is that Temple has been burned far too often of late by standing pat and trying to out X-and-O the offense. What you’ve had lately is a defense that consistently leaves its best player by far, LB Tyler Matakevich, out on an island with a speedy RB or even a slot receiver with, oh yeah, the responsibility of making every tackle of an opposing QB should he decide to run past the line of scrimmage. Owls defensive coordinator has stretched the young man too thin, and gotten him and the unit as a whole burned. Repeatedly. At this point, they need to attack on that side of the ball. They need to dictate the action, or at least try to. Right now, they are gassed, playing a soft zone exponentially more now than earlier in the season, and while it has stemmed the tide in how fast opposing teams may score, it doesn’t stop them from rolling up huge chunks of yardage – that, frankly, take a toll on that defense. If last week didn’t show the Temple coaching staff that the damn broke on that deal nothing will. So, get after Lynch. The athletes are there with the likes of Sharif Finch, Hasson Reddick and Praise Martin-Oquike to do so, and it might be recharge T-Mat’s batteries a bit if he was turned loose instead of having to read, reach and cover everyone’s keister all night long for once.
4. Utilize all the tools available
There’s only so much bitching about this that can be done here anymore on this topic. The ridiculously blatant overuse of RB Jahad Thomas has stymied the evolution of the offense, the young man himself and those backing him up. It’s fantastic to have a guy you believe that you can count on. It’s even better to have players behind capable of producing in similar fashion when given the opportunity. The best, though, is when both he and they are used in a way that benefits all. Thomas can be as North Jersey Tough as they come, but the fact of the matter is he is 188 pounds (max) of lean muscle mass getting pounded on a regular basis by guys outweighing him a good 50-60-70 pounds. In groups, mind you, not just one at a time. The kid needs a break. For his body to recover. For him to maintain some type of “fresh.” Not for nothing, but Ryquell Armstead is a beast of a young man who’s only carried the ball 41 times, and most of those have come after the Owls’ braintrust realized they might wanna scale back on the Earl Campbell-type workload Thomas was shouldering the first month of the season. Jager Gardner, who the heck knew anything about this kid before he got the start at SMU in relief of Thomas and ripped off the longest TD run (94 yards) in Temple history on the second play from scrimmage? C’mon, Matt Rhule and Co. You gotta make use of these guys. You also gotta mix in some early-down, early-game throws, and maybe even a bomb or two, before putting Walker in consistently no-win third-and-longs and impossible-to-rally positions after repeated epic-fail runs after penalties.
5. Every legit goal remains attainable
A double-digit win season. A conference championship. A New Year’s bowl game. A national ranking. All remain on the table as the Owls enter play against Memphis. If you think beating the Tigers is no big deal, consider that they just lost two games in a row, and got demolished in one of them, in their own building, and those in charge of the CFP rankings still deemed them No. 21 in the country. Believe me, Memphis has some cachet out there. You might not be able to tell by the lackluster support Temple will receive at the Linc today, a far cry from the sell-out or something close to that it deserves, but Memphis does. Beat the Tigers, and Temple is right back on track – for everything it wanted. Call yours truly a kook if you like, but there is not a single game on the Owls schedule that registered a “can’t win” here. Not Penn State. Not Cincinnati. Not Notre Dame. Not Memphis. However, the eyes behind these words have yet to see the Owls play to their potential for a full 60 minutes. They haven’t even come close, and that’s the real danger here, because if they don’t in this one, the Tigers are good enough to embarrass them. In front of their home crowd. A lot worse than South Florida did last week down in Tampa. With that, all those goals, save for a stay of execution from the governor, will die, and so much of what the Owls accomplished this season will just fade to black for most, with alums 20-30 years from now painfully trying to recall those wonderful first two months “back in 2015.”
- Jack Kerwin | firstname.lastname@example.org