AAC Championship Preview: Temple

Looking to claim its 11th conference championship in school history, and first since the 2006 Conference USA title, your 19th ranked Houston Cougars host the 22nd ranked Temple Owls this Saturday (December the 5th) at TDECU Stadium, hoping to win the inaugural American Athletic Conference Championship. Kickoff is set for 11AM (local time) and will be televised nationally by ABC. The winner gets a “New Year’s Six” Bowl game, either the Peach or Fiesta Bowl.

Houston head coach Tom Herman and his coaching staff have done a remarkable job this season in guiding the Coogs to an 11-1 record (7-1 and winners of the AAC West) despite constant injury concerns. None greater than this past Saturday’s 52-31 defeat of Navy with cornerback Brandon Wilson (5’11, 200, Jr.) playing running back for the first time since his senior year in high school, four years ago, rushing for 111 yards on 17 carries with 2 touchdowns in replacement of regular starter Kenneth Farrow (5’11, 220, Sr.) who was out with an ankle sprain. Farrow’s status (and his 86 rushing yards per game) is in doubt this week as of this writing with Herman mentioning during his weekly Monday media press conference that Wilson would no doubt play both sides of the ball against the Owls.

The Coogs will need the same type of rushing output (218 yards versus Navy who entered the game allowing only 131 per game) if they hope to beat a physically tough team in Temple (10-2, 7-1), the winners of the AAC Eastern Division. Much like the UConn squad the Coogs faced a few weeks ago, the Owls, under third year head coach Matt Rhule (18-18) preach toughness on both sides of the ball. Rhule played linebacker for four years at Penn State (1994-97) under Joe Paterno, earning Academic All-Big Ten honors in 97.  The Owls want the game played in a phone booth, not allowing the Coogs to “out-athlete” them on the perimeter as what happened last week against Navy.

Temple wants to control both lines of scrimmage, controlling the ball via the run offensively to keep the Coogs high powered offense off the field, while limiting their run game on first and second down to bring up third-and-long down and distances. The Owls average 32.2 points-per-game (ranking them 50th nationally) under third year offensive coordinator and running backs coach Marcus Satterfield. They average 158.2 yards rushing-per-game (83rd) and 209.6 yards passing (80th). The Owls 367.8 total yards of offense per-game ranks them 95th in the nation. While their offensive stats may not be impressive overall, Satterfield’s intent is to wear the opponent down via a physical, down-hill run game as they possess the ball for a second over 33-minutes, which ranks them 13th in the nation. This is a five minute improvement from last season in which they employed a more up-tempo offense.

Under defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, Houston’s “Third Ward Defense” is allowing only 117.5 yards rushing-per-game (13th nationally), so whoever wins the battle along the line of scrimmage will go a long ways towards determining the winner of the game this Saturday. Orlando’s defense only allows 21.1 points-per-game (22nd). Their Achilles is the passing game as the Coogs allow 263.5 passing yards-per-game to rank them 108th out of 128 FBS programs.  Their 381 total yards allowed has them ranked 53rd overall.

The Owls offense is led by quarterback P.J. Walker (6’1, 200, Jr.). The third year starter has the school record in TD passes with 50 and has gotten better each season as he’s completing 56.8-percent of his 347 passes (197 completions) while averaging 204.2 yards-per-game (2,450 total passing). More impressively is he’s only thrown 6 interceptions to 18 TDs. The dual-threat QB also adds 151 total yards on the ground with 2 more scores.

In Satterfield’s pro-style offense Walker uses his feet to buy his receivers time to get open, though he can gain a first down in third-and-medium situations. Walker has become more of an in-the-pocket QB, though he will roll out in order to make opposing defenses work that much harder via the throw-run option off the bootleg. Satterfield will use Walker both under center and out of the shotgun, where he’ll use the zone option package to add to a downhill “lead Iso” run game in which he’ll use formations employing a fullback along with two tight end sets.

The most important player on Temple’s offense, arguably, is running back Jahad Thomas (5’10, 188, Jr.). The high school teammate of Walker at Elizabeth High School (NJ), averages 99 yards per game on the ground this season, ranking him third in conference while his 17 rushing TDs ranks him second in conference and tied for eighth nationally. The former cornerback (during his freshman season) has scored a rushing TD in every game this season. Thomas can run between the tackles and has great acceleration though the hole along with great vision which leads to huge chunks of yards through his cut-back ability. A true dual threat, Thomas is the teams’ third leading receiver in both receptions (21) and yards (210) with a score receiving as well.

While Thomas has been dealing with a calf injury over the past few weeks, backups David Hood (5’9, 185, RFr.) and true freshmen Ryquell Armstead (5’11, 205) and Jager Gardner (6’2, 205) have more than adequately stepped up, adding 514 yards and 4 TDs combined. Gardner is the speedster of the group, averaging 5.8 yards-per-carry (to Thomas’s 4.8), while Hood has become a reliable blocker, leading him to become a nice third down back.

Satterfield will often overload his line creating a numbers advantage in which he’ll run behind, something that gave the Coogs defense problems two weeks ago at UConn, though they recovered nicely against the triple option of Navy last week. Meeting the Owls running backs head on will more than likely be Houston middle linebacker Elandon Roberts (6’0, 235, Sr.) as he leads the team in solo tackles with 84 (which ranks him SECOND nationally and would have no doubt been first if he had not been ejected early during the UConn game for targeting). His 127 total tackles has Roberts ranked 7th overall nationally while his 17 tackles-for-loss has him at 16th. While the tackling machine also adds 6 sacks, he also has 5 passes defended and an interception as he has the athleticism to drop back in one of Orlando’s various zone coverage schemes. When Orlando calls for one of his patented double-A gap blitzes, outside linebacker Steven Taylor (6’1, 225, Jr.) will no doubt try to light up Temple’s offensive line with his 15 TFL (of his 80 total), 11 QB hurries and 8 sacks. Like Roberts, Taylor also excels in coverage as he’ll also drop back in one of Orlando’s zone blitz schemes, adding 5 passes defended and 2 interceptions as well. Inside linebacker Mathew Adams (6’0, 230, So.) had his best game against Navy as he led the defense with 11 total tackles and will be looking to add to his season total of 42 against the physical run game of Temple.

How successful Temple’s run game is will be determined up front in the battle of the Owls offensive line versus Houston’s front seven. Temple’s veteran line has allowed only 15 sacks through 12 games, ranking them 23rd nationally. Every player is a multi-year starter led by left tackle Dion Dawkins (6’5, 318, Jr.). He flanks Shahbaz Ahmed (6’3, 305, Sr.) at left guard with Kyle Friend (6’2, 305, Sr.) listed as the starter at center, though he’s missed the past four games after starting 41 straight. If he’s not able to go then Brendan McGowan (6’4, 300, Jr.) gets his fifth straight start after starting at both guard spots last season. Brian Carter (6’3, 309, RSo.) starts his ninth game at right guard with Eric Lofton (6’5, 302, RSr.) at right tackle, starting for the fifth straight game for injured Leon Johnson (6’6, 320, RSo.); who started six of the first eight games at the spot.

They’ll be facing a front-7 mainly responsible for the defenses 32 sacks (14 combined by the aforementioned Roberts and Taylor from their linebacker spots). In Orlando’s 3-4 scheme, Tomme Mark (6’2, 305, Sr.), B.J. Singleton (6’4, 305, Jr.) and Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, Jr.) line up along the interior at the two defensive end and nose guard spots. While having two-gap responsibilities, the three have done a great job in engaging and shedding blocks all season long, causing chaos along the line of scrimmage. While Mark leads the line with 32 total tackles, Malveaux has used his 6’6 frame to out-leverage opposing interior offensive linemen to the tune of 21 solo tackles, 7.5 TFL, 7 QB hurries and 2.5 sacks. Singleton meanwhile has done a nice job in using his height to bat down 3 passes, leading the line in that category. Reserves Nick Thurman (6’4, 290, So.) and Jerard Carter (6’3, 290, RFr.) have added depth as both have 2 fumble recoveries each with Thurman adding 4.5 TFL. Outside rush backer Tyus Bowser (6’3, 240, Jr.) is best with his hand in the dirt acting as a fourth defensive lineman as he’s added 6 TFL, 5 QB hurries and sacks and has recovered 2 fumbles as well.

If the Coogs can stop Temple on early run downs and force them to pass the ball, they have a plethora of wide receivers and tight ends to throw to, led by Robby Anderson (6’3, 190, Sr.). Their leading receiver with 52 catches for 723 yards and 6 TDs, Anderson plays all over the field and will probably be covered by the Coogs best shut-down corner William Jackson III (6’2, 195, Sr.), who has 17 passes defended and 3 interceptions, including 2 “pick-6’s.” Ventell Bryant (6’3, 181, RFr.) is their second leading receiver with 36 receptions for 507 yards and 3 TDs. After Thomas’s 21 mentioned receptions, John Christopher (5’11, 189, Sr.), Brandon Shippen (5’11, 191, Sr.), Adonis Jennings (6’3, 190, So.) and Romond Deloatch (6’4, 214, Jr.) have 19, 14, 12 and 12 receptions respectively for 205, 190, 131 and 111 yards. While Christopher, Shippen and Jennings are all nice targets from the slot, Deloatch is a big physical threat in the red zone as he has 3 TDs. Kip Patton (6’4, 241, RFr.) is a receiving threat from the tight end spot as he averages 14.9 yards-per-reception on 11 catches while Colin Thompson (6’4, 250, RJr.) and Saladeem Major (6’3, 254, RSr.) are more in-line blocking tight ends who are nice route runners down the seam as they combine for 127 yards on 8 receptions.

If Temple’s run game is successful early, Walker loves to hit his slot receivers with the quick slant off of play-action via the zone read game. With the Coogs Brandon Wilson pulling double duty, Herman mentioned him playing corner maybe on third down. Jeremy Winchester (6’0, 190, RFr.) is listed as starter at corner and has had his ups and downs this season, with 12 total tackles and 2 passes defended in 11 games. Nickel back Lee Hightower (6’2, 200, Jr.) will be used more in coverage backing up Winchester, allowing starting safeties Trevon Stewart (5’10, 195, Sr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’11, 205, Sr.) to do their thing, attack the football. Stewart will also play a key in stopping Temple’s run game as he’s more of an in-the-box safety with 9.5 TFL (of his 64 total), 6 sacks and 5 QB hurries. He’s also versatile in coverage with 2 interceptions and 3 passes defended, though he has struggled in man coverage against slot receivers. Stewart also has a nose for the ball with 2 fumble recoveries and a forced fumble as well. McDonald holds the school record with 17 total interceptions, 4 this season, and is third on the D with 79 total tackles with 6 passes defended and 2 fumble recoveries and forced fumbles a piece.

When Rhule took the head coaching reigns at Temple three seasons ago, his key slogan became “Temple Tough.” This especially describes his defense this season under third year coordinator Phil Snow as only 15 teams allow more than the Owls 18.8 points-per-game this season. Throw out two games midseason in which they allowed 40 at SMU and 44 at USF and that average drops to 14.1 which would rank them THIRD nationally. The Owls have allowed 15 points in their final two games combined. Snow’s physical 4-3 scheme allows opponents to rush for only 117.2 yards-per-game (12th) while passing for just 211.4 yards (48th). Their 328.7 yards of total offense allowed has them at 18th overall; this against a Houston offense that’s scoring 42 points-per-game this season ranking them EIGHTH in the nation. Behind a ravaged offensive line starting three freshmen, the Coogs average 240.1 yards-per-game on the ground (14th) and 259.2 passing (36th). Houston’s 499.3 total yards per game ranks them 15th under first year coordinator Major Applewhite.

Temple’s defense is keyed by a dominating front-7 that’s disciplined and has good gap integrity. Their success starts up front with their two defensive tackles, Matt Ioannidis (6’4, 292, Sr.) and Hershey Walton (6’4, 314, RSr.). Ioannidis will line up all over the line as the Texans JJ Watt does, which leads to his 10.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks and 2 fumble recoveries. He also has quick hands as he has 3 passes batted down. Walton meanwhile has 5.5 TFL and 3 passed broken-up of his own from inside. Freddie Booth-Lloyd (6’1, 315, RFr.) and Averee Robinson (6’1, 285, Jr.) add quality depth inside with 3.5 TFL as Snow is always rotating linemen in and out.

The Owls defensive ends are cat quick and are always up the field. They’re good at disengaging blocks and attacking the ball. Snow had Nate D. Smith (6’0, 236, RSr.) switch to defensive end after playing middle linebacker the past two seasons in order to take advantage of his speed as a pass rusher. He certainly hasn’t disappointed as he leads the team with 8 sacks and his speed rush skills are prevalent with 9.5 of his 33 total tackles being for loss. Haason Reddick (6’1, 225, RJr.) “only” adds 12.5 TFL and 5 sacks from the opposite end spot. Praise Martin-Oguike (6’2, 255, RJr.) is more the prototypical end who’s split time with Smith and adds 8 TFL and 4 sacks.

Houston’s offensive line may face its biggest challenge of the season against this stout Temple defensive front. The Coogs O-line has allowed 26 sacks this season ranking them 69th. Temple’s defense has sacked opposing QB’s 33 times (18th) by disguising blitzes with a lot of odd fronts.

Alex Cooper (6’4, 305, Sr.) has been solid all season having alternated between right tackle (to begin the season), right guard (for a few games in the middle of the season), and now at left tackle. Mason Denley (6’4, 305, RFr.) has settled in nicely at left guard after not seeing any playing time the first four games of the season. The same goes for true freshman center Will Noble (6’4, 290) as he’s started the last five games at probably the most difficult position on the entire field with all the line adjustments he has to make. Along the right side, Colton Freeman (6’4, 300, RFr.) was a welcome sight last week at right guard after not playing in three of the previous four games because of a shoulder stinger suffered against UCF. The game in which he did play, Cincinnati, he played for only a few snaps before having to leave because of the lingering issue. True freshman Kameron Eloph (6’3, 290) did a nice job in replacing Freeman inside during his absence, which was amazing considering he moved over from defensive line after the SMU game (8 games ago) when starting right tackle Zach Johnson and starting left guard Josh Thomas were both lost for the season with knee and ankle injuries, respectively. That was only three weeks after starting left guard Ben Dew was lost for his final season with a broken bone is his foot. With Freeman back, Carter Wall (6’4, 300, Sr.) starts at right tackle after starting the season at right guard while also playing some left guard with all the injuries. Marcus Oliver (6’3, 295, So.) started the first five games at left tackle but hasn’t looked the same since after spraining an ankle in that SMU game. He’ll be a reserve along with Damien Parris (6’6, 315, Sr.), who’s also filled in at right tackle due to all the injuries. An unsung hero along the line is tight end Tyler McCloskey (6’2, 245, Jr.), who’s done a magnificent job on kick-out blocks on outside zone runs this season. If you’re counting, that’s eleven linemen (twelve counting McCloskey) who have contributed this season, which is unheard of in this day and age.

With Farrow a game time decision, and backup Javin Webb (5’10, 190, So.) also iffy due to a sprained ankle himself, Wilson will again be counted on in the running game for Applewhite. Webb rushed for only 18 yards on 6 carries last week so Ward’s legs will be key in this game as well. Spying him will probably be the Owls heart and soul, weakside linebacker Tyler Matakevich (6’1, 232, Sr.). With only ONE FBS offer out of Stratford, Connecticut’s St. Joseph High, the red head’s played with a major chip on his shoulder ever since as he’s one of only seven players to ever record 100 plus tackles in all four seasons. In 47 career games (having never missed a game, start or practice according to Rhule), Matakevich has amassed 473 total tackles (325 solo), 39 TFL and 7 sacks. This season he has 118 total, 71 solo and 4.5 sacks. He’s a cerebral player as well as he’s able to diagnose a play and get there for the stop or interception as he leads all FBS linebackers with 5. Jarred Alwan (6’1, 237, Jr.) adds 64 tackles, 7 for loss and is a hard hitter from his middle linebacker spot with FOUR forced fumbles. Stephaun Marshall (5’11, 203, RJr.) and Avery Williams (5’10, 200, RJr.) split reps at the strong side linebacker spot with a combined 75 total tackles (41 for Marshall). They both have an interception with Marshall adding 4 pass breakups as both are often in coverage against linebackers, running backs and slot receivers.

Applewhite will be looking to match them up against Demarcus Ayers (5’11, 190, Jr.) as he’s been moved all over the field all season long in order to force the best matchup issues from the first year offensive coordinator’s perspective. Ayers averages 95 receiving yards per game on just over 7 receptions. His 128 all-purpose yards ranks him third in the conference and 31st nationally. Temple will mix man and zone coverage and will try to bracket Ayers with a safety, forcing another receiver to step up. Last week it was reserve Linell Bonner (6’0, 200, So.), who’s 2 TDs came on 7 catches (for 92 yards). Bonner is the second leading receiver in TDs with 5 total, 1 behind Ayers.

When in man coverage, Temple’s two best cover corners are Sean Chandler (5’11, 185, So.) and Tavon Young (5’10, 180, Sr.). Chandler has 10 pass breakups and 4 interceptions and tackles well in space as he has 5.5 TFL amongst his 55 (third on the team). Young adds 7 pass breakups and 5 TFL. If Snow has Young or Chandler cover Ayers in the slot, either Steven Dunbar (6’3, 210, So.) or Chance Allen (6’3, 215, Jr.) must make Temple’s safeties pay in man coverage on the outside. Dunbar has 338 yards receiving on 26 receptions and 3 TDs but has been inconsistent with drops. Allen adds 658 yards on 49 catches and 4 TDs. Look for Applewhite to try and have Ward hit Allen with lots of quick hitters via the outside screen so the offensive line doesn’t have to deal with a heavy pass rush.

Temple safeties Alex Wells (6’0, 203, Sr.) and Will Hayes (5’9, 192, RSr.) are both hard hitters who also excel at tackling in space, as does the entire defense; part of what makes them so successful as a unit. Wells is fourth with 45 total tackles, adding 6 pass breakups and 2 interceptions. Hayes has played in only 8 games and has 18 tackles but is listed as the starter. His replacement during the mid-portion of the season, Nate L. Smith (6’1, 188, RJr.) has 44 tackles, 2 pass breakups and an interception.

Special teams wise, both teams are average at best in coverage as Temple allows opponents to average 20.3 yards per kickoff return (47th) while Houston allows 20.4 (49th). The Owls allow 9.4 yards per punt return (82nd) while the Coogs allow only 2.1 yards per punt return which ranks them THIRD in the nation however. Houston punter Logan Piper (6’0, 200, Sr.) averages only 40.7 yards per punt but has placed 18 of his 51 inside the opponent’s 20 yard line while booming another 9 more than 50 yards and forcing 18 fair catches.

For Temple, Chandler averages 14.1 yards on 12 punt returns so Piper needs to keep the ball away from him. For Houston, Ayers averages 12 yards on 23 punt returns so Temple’s Alex Starzyk (6’3, 213, So.), who averages 42.7 yards per punt, will likewise have to keep the ball away from the Cougars all-purpose threat. Wilson is not only a threat to score as a corner or running back, but as a kick return specialist as well as he averages 27.9 yards per kick return with 2 scores. Temple needs to be aware of this as their kicker; Tyler Mayes (6’2, 204, RSr.) has only 17 touchbacks on 69 kickoffs. Herman also believes in his kick return coverage team, lined with many starters, as kicker Ty Cummings (6’0, 185, Jr.) has only 26 touchbacks on 88 kickoffs. For Temple, Jager Gardner (the freshman backup running back) averages only 22.7 yards on 10 kick returns, but their starting RB, Thomas, averages 33 yards on 6 total returns.

If the game comes down to a long field goal the Coogs often see themselves underhanded as Cummings took over the job midseason, but connected on a season long 45 yarder as the first half expired in last week’s victory over Navy and has hit on all six of his attempts this season. For Temple, Austin Jones (5’10, 196, So.) has connected on 18-of-23 this season, including 3-of-5 from 40 yards out, though his season long is only 41. For his career Jones has connected on only 31-of-45 field goal attempts.

Keys to the game

Third down conversions, red zone efficiency, turnovers, penalties and second half adjustments will determine the winner of this contest.

The key to the Owls defense is in allowing opponents to convert on only 31-percent of their third down conversions, ranking them 13th. Of course when you have a dynamic QB such Ward, it’s easy to convert on 51-percent of your third downs offensively (ranking SIXTH nationally) as the Coogs do. Ward completed 9-of-11 passes for 166 yards and 3 TDs on third down against the Midshipmen, helping the offense to convert on an amazing 16-of-19 third down opportunities with FIVE TDs. Can they do that again this week?

Once the Coogs get to the red zone, can they rely on the QB sweeps in which they used to cross the goal line so many times at will during the middle portion of the season against a fast and physical Temple D that allows TDs on only 39-percent of their opponent’s red zone trips?? Allowing TDs on only 15-of-38 opportunities ranks Temple’s D SIXTH in the nation. Meanwhile Houston’s offense scores “7’s” on 42-of-59 said trips, which ranks them 14th nationally. As well as Temple’s defense flows to the ball as a unit, I’m thinking Ward is going to have to beat the Owls through the air once they cross the Temple 20-yard line. Look for the taller UH receivers (Bonner, Allen or Dunbar) on corner routes against the smaller Temple corners.

You can’t talk about the “Third Ward Defense” without mentioning turnovers. Last week the key momentum changing play was a turnover; Stewart intercepting a pass on a Malveaux tip, which led to an early third quarter TD to break the game open. The “Jack Boyz” (the secondary) have intercepted 16 passes this season. Temple has the same amount however; ranking them both tied with 4 other teams for 11th nationally. Houston has forced 28 total turnovers (fifth nationally) and they rank THIRD in turnover margin at a plus-15. Temple ranks 30th at a plus-6, forcing 22 while losing 16.

The similarities between both teams continue in the penalty category as both teams average exactly 6.3 penalties per game (70th), with Temple averaging 60.7 penalty yards per game (89th) to Houston’s 59.4 (86th). In a close game in which both teams matchup even in many categories, the team that commits the fewest self-inflicted mistakes will greatly help themselves to victory.

Finally, both teams have been second half teams this season. Houston has outscored its opponents 259 to 116, while Temple has outscored its opponents 233 to 81 during the second half. Both teams come firing out of the tunnel to start the third quarter, with the Coogs jumping on its opponents to the tune of 134 to 31 with the Owls matching at 112 to 25. Rhule is 16-4 at Temple when his team has the lead at halftime, including 7-0 this season. That’s easy to see as he gets his team to impose their will on its opponents via their physical, ball control style of play. A key could be the second quarter, where Temple has struggled this season as their opponents have outscored them 111 to 93, while Houston has blitzkrieged its opponents; 154 to 72. This isn’t all necessarily about X’s-and-O’s as Herman has discussed earlier this season. It’s merely more of his team believing in their training and having a confidence that the game plan will succeed even when adversity hits his squad.

Final Prediction

In a back and forth battle, their confidence, rush defense and Greg Ward’s feet lead Houston to a close victory, 30-24.  

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