East Carolina was able to contain the high powered Tulsa offense, but this week against Temple the Pirates defense faces a different challenge.
East Carolina held Tulsa scoreless for the majority of the game this past Saturday. Going into the game Tulsa was ranked seventh in the nation for total offense. This Thursday the ECU defense faces a different but equally difficult challenge this week.
Defensive Coordinator Rick Smith and players brought up Temple running back Jahad Thomas frequently after practice on Tuesday. Thomas did not make an impact last season in Temple’s win against ECU, but the junior running back is much improved.
“Last year was the first year he played tailback since high school,” said Simth “When he signed with temple, he was a corner and in the fall they moved from corner during fall camp to tailback. So he was still in his way last year as a tailback. He is a true tailback now, he understands and he’s good at it.
So far this season Thomas is the leading rusher in the American Athletic Conference, and is comfortably at that top spot. With 756 rush yards on the year, Thomas has been the focal point of Temple’s offense. Against Central Florida, he totaled 199 yards on 31 carries and facing a power five defense, Penn State, he carried the load with 135 yards rushing.
The stellar season from its running back has helped Temple’s quarterback PJ Walker. Walker is in his second full season as the starting quarterback for the Owls. Coming in relief for then starting quarterback Connor Reily, Walker took over the starting job week six in 2013 and has had the job since. That season the junior quarterback finished 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions but last season he turned the ball over more totaling 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Now Walker is much improved with eight touchdowns and only three interceptions completing 60.8 percent of his passes. Walker is a dual threat quarterback but has negative six rushing yards this season.
“Last year was his like his first year,” said Smith. “He was a one-looker and the routes were simple. He knew where he was going with it when the play was called. Now you can see him looking at his first key and if that is taken away, he looks at his second key.”
The Pirates secondary will still be without cornerback Corey Seargent, who is out for the second straight week with a leg injury. Safety Terrell Richardson is also injured but will be active for the game. DaShawn Benton will start at safety, but Richardson may still see some playing time.
Temple’s defense is coming into Dowdy-Ficklen stadium looking. The Owls defense ranks at the top in total defense in the American and seventh in the nation. Temple ranks in the top 10 in rush defense allowing 92 yards per game and their pass defense ranks in the top 15 allowing 296 yards. The balanced defense allowed only 10 points to Penn State and held future NFL draft prospect Christian Hackenberg to 103 yards on 11 completions with 25 attempts and an interception.
“Execution. They execute very well. Phil Snow is doing a good job. Because of their experience, they can expand more. They do a really good job of being disciplined in their run-gap thought process. They blitz. They also have a front seven that might be the best in the league. The front four can apply pressure. They involve all seven in run stopping. I like watching them play.”
The Owls defense is led by outside linebacker Tyler Matakevich. The senior linebacker for the Owls recorded three sacks in its season opener against the Nittany Lions. Although he has been shut down rushing the passer, Matakevich still ranks fifth in the conference with 8.7 tackles per game, ECU linebacker Zeek Bigger ranks sixth. But Matakevich is not only a good tackler, he leads the American in interceptions with three so far this season.
Last season ECU went into Lincoln Financial Field ranked 23rd. This season the Owls come to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium ranked 22nd. Although this can be looked at as a revenge game, the Pirates downplaying that notion.
“They beat us last year. It wasn’t luck. They did a good job. I talk about getting better. Let’s play our best game our next game, but play our best game our last game of the year. Temple has a great team and proposes a great opportunity, but a challenge for us. I talk more about preparation. That’s how I’m built and that’s what I believe in.”