Pete Sampson: When we talked last summer you mentioned how beating Penn State would be bigger than beating Notre Dame in terms of significance to Temple. With the national broadcast, Temple’s success and Notre Dame’s profile, has that changed?
Bill Evans: I would say Notre Dame now because Temple comes into this at 7-0 for the first time in school history. It’s obviously in primetime, national television. Notre Dame plays a part in this too with one loss, ranked in the Top 10. If Temple was 4-3 but had beaten Penn State, and if Notre Dame was at the bottom of the Top 25, this wouldn’t be nearly as big. Now, with everything that goes into this game, it’s bigger than Penn State. And to put that in perspective, Temple hadn’t beaten Penn State in 74 years. It did so much for the program regionally. But beating Notre Dame, that would be a national moment for Temple because of all the circumstances around the matchup.
PS: Most Notre Dame fans haven’t seen much of Temple beyond East Carolina last week. How legit is this defense? The Owls rank in the Top 10 in yards per play allowed, sacks, interceptions, red zone and scoring.
BE: I think they’re legit. They’ve beat some really good teams, Penn State, Cincinnati and East Carolina. They’ve certainly been in a lot of close games that have come down to the fourth quarter and Temple could be 3-4 right now. But they’ve found a way to win. The last couple years, Temple hasn’t won those games. I think the turn speaks to the maturity of the program.
PS: Has the defense surprised you or did you sort of see this coming?
BE: They were really good last year and brought everybody back. So I thought they should be good again. It starts in the middle with linebacker Tyler Matakevich. He might be as good as it gets nationally at the position and this is a very good run defense overall (No. 6 nationally, 91.9 yards per game). Matakevich can go sideline-to-sideline, maybe he gets a little lost against the pass, but he’s made four interceptions this year and they’ve been big ones. If that’s his weakness, he’s still pretty good there.
The secondary is improved from last year. Up front, there’s more of a rotation and the defense will get after quarterbacks pretty good. They did give up some big plays at East Carolina on third down and fourth down, which was disappointing. But they made enough stops to win the game. I really think the defense was a strength overall coming into the year and that’s remained the case.
PS: Notre Dame’s strength is clearly the offensive line and they’ve kept DeShone Kizer relatively clean. What is Temple’s approach to getting after quarterbacks? Just rush four? Blitz? Send everybody?
BE: I think it’s a mix. They do bring the linebackers sometimes. Matakevich had three sacks against Penn State and they got to Christian Hackenberg 10 times. But the next week Temple dropped a lot into coverage and got four interceptions.
Beyond Matakevich, keep an eye on Nate Smith, the converted linebacker to defensive end. Throw in Haason Reddick too as an outside pass rusher. On the interior, Matt Ioannidis has been really good and has played a ton of football. Two years ago he couldn’t get a lot of pressure and he’s really developed his game.
Overall, Temple struggled to get after quarterbacks two years ago but they’ve improved so much, including the ability to beat guys one-on-one. Now they can mix that with linebackers blitzing. Sometimes you’ll even see safeties come hard with pressure. It’s been effective.
PS: Watching the East Carolina game, the Temple pass game was a lot of slower developing deep shots. Was that indicative of the season or more game plan specific for quarterback P.J. Walker?
BE: East Carolina was gearing up to stop the run game and a lot of teams have tried that against running back Jahad Thomas (14 total touchdowns). East Carolina was giving Temple more of a look with deep shots and they hit a lot of them. Walker had a great game. Receiver Robb Anderson had a big touchdown that put them ahead. Temple’s receivers are all 6-foot-something, big, athletic guys. Last year it seemed like the group was more in the 5-foot-7, 160-pound range. The change has made the passing game more about taking deep shots and let those guys go get it.
PS: Even though Thomas rushed for just 66 yards against East Carolina, you could tell what kind of athlete Temple has at running back. For people who haven’t seen him play, how good is this guy?
BE: To me, he’s the most important guy on the team. Early in his career Temple would rotate its backs and you’d see Thomas get in there and take a screen pass 75 yards or he’d bust a big run on a draw. But he wasn’t consistent enough to earn 25 carries per game. This year I think he’s surprised the staff a little bit with that consistency. Now Temple has that true No. 1 back.
You have to look back a couple years to Bernard Pierce or Montel Harris to find a real lead back here. This off-season the offensive coordinator said Temple wanted to get back to that, to get away from the back-by-committee approach. For Thomas to earn that role, it goes back to his off-season work, putting on muscle where he can take 25-30 carries. He’s worn down a little bit, but in the Central Florida game he still had some big runs into the fourth quarter. You can stop him for three quarters and he’s still got enough in the fourth to get to the edge and break it.
PS: What kind of atmosphere do you expect Saturday night? This has a chance to be a really unique environment, a sellout, but with a lot of Notre Dame fans too, maybe 10,000 of them.
BE: It might be more than that, Notre Dame-wise. The Penn State game was a sellout and of the nearly 70,000 there, it was probably split 50-50 between Temple and Penn State. Maybe we’ll see 40,000 or 50,000 Temple fans on Saturday night and the rest Notre Dame. That’s going to add to the excitement, with GameDay coming in on top of that.
This is going to be the biggest game at Temple in decades, if not longer. Temple football is really in a good spot now, building the program into the Big East, moving out to the MAC and now settling into the American. It’s a good league with Memphis and Houston with a conference championship game that Temple should be a part of this year. Temple has a good young coach in Matt Rhule that they want to keep for a long time and possibly build a stadium closer to campus down the road.