Temple’s What 2 Watch: Connecticut
OWLS (9-2, 6-1 AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE) vs. HUSKIES (6-5, 4-3 AAC) | PHILADELPHIA
LINCOLN FINANCIAL FIELD, SATURDAY, 7 P.M., ESPNU, 97.5 FM THE FANATIC
In this football season for the ages at Temple, big, meaningful games have not been lacking. Penn State, Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Memphis were all crucial to putting the Owls’ program on the national map, even though many in hometown Philly still have a hard time finding it. But this game, with a berth in the inaugural American Athletic Conference on the line, not to mention a double-digit win regular season for the first time in school history and better bowl position, now jumps to the front of the pack. The two have played the last three years with Temple winning twice, including in a 36-10 cakewalk 14 months ago in East Hartford, Conn. Owls QB P.J. Walker was quite sharp in that one, completing 20 of 29 passes for 231 yards and a TD, but it was DB Tavon Young’s 93-yard “pick-6” that provided the real spark in a game dominated by defense (don’t be fooled by the Temple point total; it only gained 272 yards) and turnovers (a battle won by the Owls, 3-1). Truth is, both teams are dramatically improved since then, with Temple already having improved its win total of a year ago by three games this season and UConn by four. Sophomore QB Bryant Shirreffs (1,992 yards passing and 428 yards rushing) has been a major reason for the Huskies’ emergence.
2. Better be prepared for two different offenses
A shorter, more stocky, albeit slightly less skilled version of Memphis star QB Paxton Lynch, Shirreffs could present a lot of problems for the Owls – except for two things: They just shut down Lynch last week with little or no fuss, and Shirreffs may not play due to suffering a head injury during the Huskies’ 20-17 upset of previously unbeaten Houston last week. When healthy, he is a dangerous player for UConn, capable of carrying them past lesser opponents and keeping them in games against better ones. Thing is, he may not play at all against Temple, having had limited participation in practice this week while backup Tim Boyle ran the first-team offense. A more conventional pocket passer, the 6-3, 225-pound junior would seem ideal fodder for the Owls’ defense, unable to escape their rush and either get sacked or turn the ball over. His career TD-to-INT ratio is not the greatest: 1-12 (yes, you read that right). Regardless, Temple would be wise to be prepared for either, or both, to play – and be ready to adjust accordingly, recognizing that WR Noel Thomas and RB Arkeel Newsome will be key outlets to either.
3. Numbers say 'defensive battle'
For all the positive publicity the Owls have received for their play on D this season, the reality is, statistically speaking, they’ll have the second-best one at the Linc on Saturday night. UConn ranks higher in every major category (total yards allowed per game, passing yards allowed per game and points allowed per game) except one: rushing yards allowed per game. The Huskies are not so much an attacking bunch as they are a read-and-react tackling one. Three of their defenders have 70 or more stops this season, headed by senior DB Andrew Adams (81, including 17 in one game against Navy). They do have a pass-rushing talent in Luke Carrezola, a 6-3, 255-pound sophomore OLB who somehow escaped the recruiting clutch of Temple coach Matt Rhule while playing high school ball in suburban Philly. The Neshaminy product has six sacks this season, including five in the last five games – two, in fact, last week against then-No. 19 Houston. Against Memphis, the Owls were, in a word, awesome. They held one of the nation’s best offenses more than 300 yards and 30 points below its season averages. Everyone knows the deal here – they attack, they swarm and they take their lead from senior LB Tyler Matakevich, who should be bringing home some serious individual hardware after the season.
4. Continue to spread the wealth
Last week was a revelation as the Owls showed wonderful balance in their attack and actually delved deep into their backfield rotation in racking up 200 yards on the ground. With star RB Jahad Thomas slowed by injury and fatigue, and his backup Ryquell Armstead out due to injury, Temple ran freshman David Hood and Jager Gardner a combined 26 times for 104 yards … and Walker another seven for 49. Thomas still got 12 totes for 34 yards, as the coaching staff seemed too preoccupied with trying to utilize him, especially at crucial junctures such as fourth-and-1s that failed miserably with Thomas plunging right into the middle of a pile and getting stopped in his tracks. But, by and large, it was good to see others being used, as it paved the way to a brilliant 14-yard TD run by Hood and opened up the passing game. Walker went 14-for-26 for 261 yards and two TDs, connecting on long ones with WRs Brandon Shippen (49 yards), Robby Anderson (32), Ventell Bryant (31) and TE Colin Thompson (34). It would be wise to continue in that vein, this week and beyond.
5. Leave no doubt
As great as this season has been for Temple football and its long-suffering fans, the Owls haven’t exactly been going all Mike Tyson on opponents, knocking them out early and then standing defiantly over them, just daring them to get up, ready to deliver even more lethal blows. Until Memphis. In their most well-rounded effort of the season, the Owls gave a glimpse of what they can be when all cylinders are running. The defense was dominant and the offense pretty darn efficient, so much so that losing the turnover battle (minus-2) didn’t even factor. The same kind of balanced and well-prepared performance a week earlier likely would have saved them the embarrassment of getting blown out by surging South Florida. That being said, if a 44-23 whooping was needed to really turn on that “Leave No Doubt” switch the rest of the season, perhaps that visit to Tampa, Fla., was the best thing for Rhule’s third edition of Owls, who now stand on the precipice of the best season of Temple football ever. This is no time to let up. This is the time to really to press on and finish up strong, leaving absolutely no doubt.
- Jack Kerwin | firstname.lastname@example.org