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The Big USF at Temple Preview

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This is USF’s second-toughest game of the season to date, and easily their most important.

Overview

For a team that spent a good chunk of the season ranked in the Top 25, won the AAC East, and hosted College Gameday for a clash against Notre Dame, Temple received very little hype going into the 2016 season. Part of this is due to the fact that the Owls faded quite a bit down the stretch, winning just three of their last seven games after opening up 7-0; part of it is due to losing some fantastic players off a strong defense, and the biggest part likely has to do with opening up the season with a blowout loss at home against Army.

This is usually a fantastic reason to write a team off for the season (a blowout loss! At home! To Army!), and most of us did. Army, however, has proven to be much tougher than anyone would have anticipated this season-- the Knights are off to a 4-2 start and rank 66th in S&P+-- and Temple hasn't really played a bad game since. They hung with a sneaky-good Penn State team on the road, thrashed SMU, outgained Memphis 510-323 in a turnover-filled loss on the road, and after stunning UCF with an improbable touchdown in the literal last second of play, currently sit at 4-3 on the year, with a 2-1 mark in AAC play and a chance to pull into first place in the East if they can upset USF at home. Not bad for a down year, huh?

This is all to suggest that we may have been overlooking the Owls just a little bit. USF fans have been so fixated on a potential matchup with Houston or Navy or Memphis in the AAC Championship Game that many of us wrote off the defending division champions a bit too soon. Hopefully the Bulls don't have this same issue, because Temple is a pretty decent team that's gradually rounding into form.

Peripherals

Team S&P+ (Overall) S&P+ (USF O vs. Temple D) S&P+ (Temple O vs. USF D) S&P+ (ST)
USF 26 12 84 11
Temple 46 16 82 73


One thing is certain: the Owls will be the second-best team USF has played to date this season, and it's not particularly close. While the general consensus is, justifiably, that Temple's taken a big step back this season, S&P+ actually likes the 2016 Owls more than the 2015 version (46th vs. 49th, respectively). I wouldn't go nearly this far, but the point is a legitimate one-- this year's Temple squad is not significantly worse than its predecessor. This is a testament to the excellent coaching job happening in Philadelphia by Matt Rhule, who is one of the cooler, down-to-earth coaches to whom I've ever spoken. The resurgent Owls are easy to like.

They're also a creepy, paradox version of this USF team, which you can see in the numbers above. Temple's defense is strong; almost as strong as USF's offense has been. Temple's offense has been ineffective; also as ineffective as USF's defense. This is a fascinating matchup, simply because the teams will take turns fighting strength on strength and weakness on weakness. USF has the edge on paper, but not by nearly as much as you'd think.

When Temple Runs...

Team Rushing S&P+ Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
Temple Offense 66 68 78
USF Defense 85 90 14


The typical Rhule-coached Temple team is a power run-heavy offense paired with a nasty defense. This year's team isn't necessarily an exception, but the Owls have gotten away from their roots on a couple occasions and let senior quarterback Phillip (formerly P.J.) Walker sling the ball around, with mixed results. Temple went back to the grind-it-out approach against UCF and fell behind by 18 in the first half, but stuck to their guns, inched back into the game behind their rushing attack, and pulled out a miracle win at the end. The Owls' one-two bunch in the backfield-- senior Jahad Thomas and sophomore Ryquell Armstead-- combined for 41 carries and 198 rushing yards against the Knights. Given USF's struggles stopping the run, I'd expect Temple to feed Thomas and Armstead early and often.

Can the Bulls stop Temple's rushing attack? I'm not optimistic. The Owls' offensive line has been the key to their success on the ground (Temple ranks 33rd in Adj. Line Yards, which accounts for rushing yards created by the offensive line), as Thomas and Armstead haven't run all over defenses as much as they have killed them slowly and methodically. This isn't a good matchup for a USF defensive front that's been struggling to get off blocks and fill gaps. The USF defense was much better against the run against UConn last weekend, holding the Huskies to 3.3 yards per carry, but the averages are skewed a bit by the Bulls' nine TFLs. I'll believe that they can stop a solid running game when I see it.

When Temple Passes...

Team Passing S&P+ Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
Temple Offense 44 86 32
USF Defense 48 47 41


It's not the most efficient of attacks, and perhaps Walker isn't displaying the sort of consistency you'd expect from a four-year starter (ten touchdown passes and ten interceptions to date), but the Owls' passing game has a little bit of pop to it. Seven different targets have caught at least ten balls for Temple, and Walker's had a couple big games so far this season. Check out his numbers in his last three games:

vs. SMU: 22-44 for 199 yards
at Memphis: 36-59 for 449 yards
at UCF: 12-24 for 167 yards

There's no rhyme or reason to that; Walker is just as liable to light up a secondary as he is to complete under 50% of his passes. In fact, the only constant in those games has been turnovers-- he's thrown five interceptions in his last three contests. That's far from ideal, especially in a potential shootout where the margin for error is pretty slim. USF was finally able to get some pressure from their defensive front against UConn, and I'd expect them to try to rattle Walker into some errors by bringing heat against a Temple offensive line that's been iffy in pass rush.

When USF Runs...

Team Rushing S&P+ Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
USF Offense 18 14 24
Temple Defense 35 28 97


No one's been able to stop USF's rushing offense, but Temple's run defense should provide the Bulls with one of their stiffer tests to date. Teams haven't really been able to run the ball consistently on Temple's defense, but the Bulls don't really need to run the ball consistently to be effective-- if you give Marlon Mack or Quinton Flowers an iota of open space, they can take a run to the house. This is good news against an Owls defense that's been shaky at stopping opponents once they hit the second level. UCF only managed 86 yards rushing against Temple last week, but they ripped off two runs that went for 63 and 32 yards apiece (think about how challenging it is mathematically to do this!). A week earlier, Memphis had runs of 71 and 28 yards. The Owls might be able to slow Mack and Flowers on a drive-to-drive basis, but I can't see them doing it for the entire game.

When USF Passes...

Team Passing S&P+ Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
USF Offense 72 67 4
Temple Defense 34 18 56


Temple's been solid against the pass, thanks in large part to a strong pass rush-- they rank seventh in the nation in sack rate. USF's offense is constructed well to combat this, as Flowers won't be sitting in the pocket much; USF focuses on getting the ball out of his quickly on screens and outs, and letting him extend plays with his feet.

I'm most curious to see what approach Willie Taggart takes with the passing game tonight. I mentioned after the first few games that I wasn't really comfortable with the amount of intermediate-level pocket passing he was forcing Flowers to do, as Quinton showed flashes of brilliance but never looked entirely comfortable. Taggart has simplified things lately, letting Flowers carry the ball much more (this might have been out of necessity after Darius Tice's injury) and utilizing short throws ad nauseam. These screens weren't effective for a decent chunk of the UConn game, and it got to the point where I felt Taggart had overcompensated too much in the other direction.

There's a happy medium to be found here. The screens and short passes are a vital part of USF's offense; many of them are run-pass options, and they're necessary in order to set up deep shots downfield. But just because USF has players who can convert a third and long by gaining ten yards after the catch doesn't mean that needs to be their primary way of converting-- we've seen that Flowers is capable of making intermediate throws on occasion, and you can take the training wheels off from time to time without going full pocket passer. If Taggart can find this medium, I have a hard time believing Temple slows down USF's offense too much... but he hasn't quite gotten there yet.

Summary & Prediction

I'm 7-0 so far on these predictions, which has been astoundingly easy to do-- USF hasn't played in too many close games yet. This is the toughest one I've picked so far, apart from perhaps the FSU game. These teams are surprisingly evenly matched on paper.

That said, there are two big aspects of this game that I think tilt it in the Bulls' favor: USF is much, much more capable of ripping off chunk plays than Temple is, and Walker is much more turnover prone than Flowers is. If the Bulls win the turnover battle, it's hard to see them losing the game.

But they're facing a steadily improving team on the road in a primetime game with the AAC East lead on the line, and I doubt the Owls have forgotten about their lone loss in conference play last season. It wouldn't take much for the Bulls to lose this one-- in fact, if they play the way they did the last two weeks, that might be enough.

I think the Bulls pull it out, but I'm expecting a battle.

USF 35, Temple 27