The season didn't get off to a great start for the Owls, who dropped their opener to FCS member Villanova before falling to Penn State in week two. Since then, however, coach Golden's team has flexed its muscles, winning five straight and jumping out to a perfect 4-0 record in the MAC. Temple has already taken down one triple option opponent when they defeated Army in week six. The win was deceptive though, as Temple was outgained by 61 total yards and benefited from two Army turnovers and 14 Black Knight penalties. Still, Navy fans won't soon forget last year's game in Annapolis, where Temple blew a 20 point fourth quarter lead in one of the greatest Navy comebacks in history. Which team will have the edge this year? Here are three key position battles to keep and eye on for Saturday's action.
While Pitt's Dion Lewis is credited (and rightly so) by many commentators around the country as being the best freshman running back, Temple's Pierce has made a strong case for the distinction. Prior to Temple's win over Army two weeks ago, Pierce had run for 100 or more yards in three straight games. He was well on his way towards carving up Army's defense (11 carries for 65 yards) before injuring his shoulder. Despite being taken off the field on a stretcher, Pierce made an amazing return to the field last week against Toledo and ran for 212 yards and three touchdowns in the win. Despite Pierce's success this season, Temple has been notoriously bad in establishing the running game against Navy in past matchups, and was only able to muster 69 rushing yards last year, thanks in large part to Navy ILB Ross Pospisil, who led the team with 11 tackles (eight solo). Despite Navy's stringent defensive play in the past against Temple, the Mids have yet to face an Owl running back with anywhere near the ability of Pierce, and will have the challenge of going up the best Temple offensive line unit of the decade. The Mids held Wake Forest's running game in check last week, and if Pospisil and company can stop the Owls from establish Pierce early this week, expect the Navy offense to jump to an early lead.
‘Massive' is certainly a word which comes to mind when describing Temple's sophomore defensive tackle, who comes in at 6-foot-5, 302-pounds. Not just a "big boy" however, Wilkerson has been a huge reason for Temple defensive success throughout the early part of the year, dominating opposing interior linemen and stuffing the run. He has been huge (literally) in taking on double teams to allow for Temple's athletic linebackers to flow freely to opposing ballcarriers, yet still has big play capability in his own right, notching 5.0 tackles for a loss and three sacks on the year. Wilkerson is the kind of player who can not only blow up the fullback at the point of attack, but also disrupt Navy's ability to pass off of play-action -- something the Mids tried, but were unable to do, against Wake Forest last weekend. The job of stopping Wilkerson will fall to sophomore David Hong, who has started for banged-up guard Andy Lark over the past three games. Hong held his own against Wake's talented defensive tackles last week, but it'll be interesting to see how his own 6-foot-3, 278-pound frame does against Wilkerson on Saturday. If he can contain Wilkerson, expect coordinator Ivin Jasper to give Kriss Proctor more leeway in airing it out downfield.
Typically speaking, against a front like Temple's, the playside tackle will be tasked with taking out the middle linebacker on a triple option play. Battipaglia has shown time and time again that he has been able to accomplish this task, but in the cases he hasn't (against Pitt, for instance) Navy has struggled to establish the perimeter run game. This facet of the offense figures to be especially important this week, as speedy slotback Marcus Curry is likely to be unavailable against Temple, as is Michael Stukel, who will be backing up Kriss Proctor at quarterback. While Bobby Doyle and Cory Finnerty are both accomplished at the position and very good athletes, neither is as fast as Curry or Stukel, leaving less margin of error for Battipaglia against Temple linebacker Alex Joseph. Joseph was Temple's leading tackler against Navy last year (9 solo stops) and showed some ability to shed cut blocks, and was also effective against Army earlier this season. The 6-foot-2 linebacker is a sleeper pro prospect who by now has gone up against option teams on numerous occasions throughout his career, and will likely be gunning for Navy's slotbacks off the edge. If Battipaglia can neutralize Joseph, expect Navy's otherwise banged-up offense to roll.