Date: Friday, October 21st (7:00 p.m.)
Head Coach: Matt Rhule (18-20 at Temple and in career)
Offensive Coordinator: Glenn Thomas (Pro Spread)
Defensive Coordinator: Phil Snow (4-3)
All-Time Series: 1-1. Skip Holtz’ed 37-28 in 2012 in Philly, a 44-23 beating that wasn’t that close in Ray Jay in 2015. Relive one of the most complete games of last season by the Bulls here.
Returnees: 12 of 24 starters (five offense, five defense, kicker, punter) from last year are back for the Owls in 2016.
Offense: Temple won 10 games last year on the strength of their premium defense, and finished just 89th in offensive S&P+, and 98th in success rating. Some of the key pieces return, but can they improve drastically to give their weakened defense a chance?
Fourth-year starting quarterback P.J. Walker has changed his name to Phillip Walker, but that probably won’t fix his accuracy issues. One of the most dynamic, explosive, and frustrating players in the conference completed 56.8% of his passes last year, and threw 19 touchdowns against eight interceptions. That’s basically his career in a nutshell, and he is what he is at this point. Career? 56.5% completion ratio and a school-record 52 touchdowns vs. 31 picks. And it’s worse when you take out his numbers in two games against SMU.
He can throw the ball a million miles an hour, and can make plays with his feet. He also uses that rocket arm on a lot of throws unnecessarily, makes silly errors, and can drive Temple fans to the State Store when he blows the basic ones. His career arc is that of a bigger Quinton Flowers that makes more mistakes. He also doesn’t have the talent Q does around him to help clean it up.
I’ve seen Walker in person a few times now, the last in a rain-soaked Boca Raton Bowl vs. Toledo. The plays were there, and he simply couldn’t make them. Will he figure it out in his final year?
Jahad Thomas will carry the load in the backfield. He’s a home run guy who had 277 carries for 1262 yards last year, and if negative yardage didn’t matter it seems like he’d of run for 5000. Thomas’ line didn’t give him a lot of room last year, and the opportunity rate on his carries was just 31%.
Ventell Bryant is the leading returning wide receiver, but with just 39 catches for 579 yards he’s not setting the world on fire. Bryant was beaten out by Marshall Ellick at the X on the initial depth chart, who has zero career catches as a redshirt sophomore. Hawaii transfer Keith Kirkwood hasn’t caught a pass since the middle of 2014, but he’s the starting Z. Robby Anderson and his nearly 1000 yards graduated, so who’s going to catch the ball?
With Walker behind center, it’s tough to know how much of a very limited passing game is on the thrower, and how much is on the catcher. But there are serious questions about how Temple will throw and catch the football this season. And for a team that was far below mediocre on offense anyway... could it get worse?
Two First Team All-AAC O-linemen in C Kyle Friend and RT Eric Lofton graduated, but four blockers in Dion Dawkins, Brian Carter, Leon Johnson, and Brendan McGowan have a combined 34 starts. The LT Dawkins started 13 games and was second team all-conference. They’ll need to give more time to Walker and open more holes for Thomas for this offense to have anything resembling a chance.
Defense: One of the strongest defenses in the American last year took some hits via graduation, led by Bednarik and Nagurski Award winner Tyler Matakevich. The Owls were 18th in defensive S&P+ in 2015, and ninth in per-play defensive success rating, with opponents making efficient progress on just 34.3% of snaps. But seven players that started for the top defensive unit in the AAC last season have departed, including NFL draftees Matakevich, DT Matt Ioannidis, and DB Tavon Young.
Free safety Sean Chandler (65 tackles, four INT’s, two Pick 6’s) returns, as does redshirt senior DE Haason Reddick (45 tackles, five sacks). Mike LB Jarred Alwan started all but one game in 2015, and he’ll quarterback the defense.
Guys like Praise Martin-Oguike, Sharif Finch, and Jacob Martin all have experience with a hand on the ground, and three senior LB’s in Alwan, Avery Williams, and Stephaun Marshall should be ready to play. All three are projected as starters on the first depth chart.
The secondary has many more questions. Nate Hairston and Artrel Foster played in 26 games combined last season, but also combined for all of one pass breakup and zero INT’s. They’re the starting cornerbacks as of now, and there doesn’t seem to be much depth behind them. Senior Nate L. Smith brings more experience at strong safety, but how much can the safeties play downhill if the corners can’t be trusted?
There’s likely a talent dropoff on defense for the 2016 Owls, but the question is how far does it go? You can’t graduate that many outstanding players and expect to reload when 79 players on your roster are from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. There’s just not enough talent in that area of the country, especially after the Big 10 and Notre Dame get the good ones.
Kicking Game: The Owls can win with special teams. Austin Jones made 44-45 PAT’s last year, and 4-6 FG’s from beyond 40 yards. Punter Alex Starzyk averaged 42.4 yards per boot, and dropped 18 of them inside the 20 against eight touchbacks. Chandler is also a strong punt return man, averaging 12.1 on 17 attempts.
Temple on paper isn’t as good a football team as they were in 2015. But it’s a Friday night game on the road, and they’ll have a much better sense of their identity by the third week in October. USF will need to do more than show up to win, but it is a game where they’d be favored if it was played opening weekend.
That won’t make it any easier for Bulls fans with memories of weeknights on ESPN on the road dancing through their heads.