Let the defense finally begin. Defense of Temple’s American Athletic Conference (AAC) title, that is.
After holding off their third straight non-league opponent, UMass, 29-21 Friday night at the Linc, the 2-1 Owls can finally point to their ultimate goal: retaining the Conference championship they claimed so convincingly last December at Navy.
But it won’t be easy, particularly since they have to start off Thursday night in Hurricane Irma-ravaged Tampa against No. 22 ranked South Florida (USF). New coach Charlie Strong’s 3-0 Bulls are loaded, coming off a convincing 47-23 rout of Big Ten power Illinois. Plus, they’ll be aiming for revenge following last season’s 46-30 loss to the Owls here that cost them the AAC East title.
“It’s going to be a short week for us,” said defensive end Jacob Martin, who had one of nine Temple sacks on the night, after the Owls managed just five their first two games. “We need to focus on USF which has a lot of explosive guys. Everybody knows we have to take the next step.”
Particularly against USF’s multi-dimensional quarterback Quentin Flowers, who threw for 280 yards and four touchdowns vs. the Illini, while rushing for 106 more, including his 32nd career touchdown. Considering the way Temple has been lit up the past two weeks — with Villanova’s Zack Bednarczyk and UMass’ Andrew Ford throwing for 382 and 377 yards respectively — after Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush ran and passed them into submission, 49-16, in their opener, it’s cause for concern.
“We messed up in our coverages and need to fix that,” said safety Delvon Randall, as the Owls survived by tightening up once the Minutemen got inside the Temple 25, coupled with UMass missing three field goals under 40 yards. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to get ready for USF. We need to be way better than we were in our other games. We miscommunicated a bit and got sloppy with our technique in the secondary. But our defensive line stepped up. They were ballin.’”
No one more so than redshirt freshman Quincy Roche, who had three sacks, forcing a fumble on one which he recovered, leading to a Temple touchdown that made it 19-7 at. the half. Sam Finch and Sharif Finch tacked on two sacks apiece, which enabled the Owls to keep the 0-4 Minutemen winless.
Now can do they anything resembling that against Flowers, the 2016 AAC Offensive Player of the Year, followed by 2015 AAC Champ Houston, with Navy and Tulsa yet to come?
At the same time Temple will need more of the kind of offense it showed vs. the Minutemen, with Logan Marchi throwing touchdown passes to Adonis Jennings, Keith Kirkwood and Isaiah Wright, while kickers Aaron Boumerhi and Austin Jones combined for three field goals, including Boumerhi’s career long 52-yarder.
But the running game again struggled. After Ryquell Armstead broke loose for 56 yards on the second play of the game, Temple managed just 61 yards on 32 carries the rest of the way. Collins & Co. know they’ll need better balance with what lies ahead.
One thing that’s helped is the Owls have only turned the ball over once all season.
“Taking care of the football is big for us,” agreed Marchi, who has yet to throw an interception in 106 attempts, with five TD passes. “That’s a key in those close games. It’s a big role to be the leader as quarterback. Being composed and taking care of ball is my main concern. Guys respond to that.”
The timing couldn’t be better for the defending AAC Owls, who’ve gone though all the preliminaries to get to this point. Now here comes the hard part, beginning Thursday in Tampa.