KEYS TO THE TEMPLE GAME
The Temple game last season was amongst the more disappointing of Head Coach Greg Schiano's inaugural season. Temple was the obvious target for a conference win to serve as an indicator of progress at Rutgers, which was coming off a winless 2000 Big East season and was facing a substantial building project. Rutgers had just put a disappointing loss to Connecticut behind it with a near-upset of bowl-bound Syracuse at Rutgers Stadium. The Scarlet Knights ventured down the Turnpike to meet the Owls at Veterans Stadium. Unfortunately, Rutgers left the confidence and momentum from the Syracuse game back in Piscataway and flopped around through an embarrassing 30-5 loss that wasn't as close as the score indicated.
Temple had demolished Rutgers in 2000 at Rutgers Stadium amidst a gaggle of TOs and missed tackles. The loss was so disgusting that it prompted Athletic Director Bob Mulcahy to publicly state that the defeat left him wanting to leap from his observation point in the Hale Center. The 2001 Temple game very quickly mimicked the 2000 fiasco as WR Delrico Fletcher fumbled at the end of a 39-yard catch-and-run on Rutgers opening possession. Owl PK Cap Poklemba successfully kicked FGAs of 38 and 32 yards to give Temple a 6-0 lead at the end of the 1st Quarter. QB Ryan Cubit opened the 2nd Quarter with a poor read on a hitch route that resulted in 70-yard INT return for a TD. Midway though the quarter, Temple zipped 89 yards in only 4 plays to take a commanding 20-0 lead. Rutgers finally responded with a 10-play, 56-yard drive that ended in a 38-yard FG. However, Temple returned the ensuing KO to the RU45 and connected on a 45-yard bomb on the next play. The Owls took a daunting 27-3 lead into the locker room at halftime. Temple gained 163 rushing yards on only 23 first-half carries as TB Tenardo Sharps and FBs Harold Jackson and Jason McKie gashed the Rutgers defense with repeated big gains after missed tackles. Meanwhile, Temple stymied Rutgers with minus 11 rushing yards on 14 carries as the Owl DL repeatedly disrupted plays in the Rutgers backfield.
Temple returned the 2nd Half KO to the RU12. So much for regrouping at halftime. However, the Scarlet Knights stopped the Owls, who nonetheless settled for a 24-yard FG. That was all the excitement that occurred in the 2nd half. The Rutgers defense belatedly handled the Temple offense. And the Rutgers offense continued to clusterphuck. Temple took a deliberate safety on a punt in the final minute to close the scoring.
For the past two seasons, a tougher and more fundamentally sound Temple team has whipped a comparably talented Rutgers team. Has Rutgers closed the coaching gap and the toughness gap sufficiently to give themselves a chance at ending their 20 game Big East losing streak? Here are my five keys to the Temple game.
1. Turnovers. TOs have bedeviled Rutgers in every conference game this season. The Scarlet Knights competed against superior Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, and Miami teams but TOs compromised the upset bids. Furthermore, TOs contributed to blowout losses against beatable West Virginia and Syracuse teams. The Rutgers defense has shown the ability to blunt long TD drives. Temple should struggle to drive the length of the field. The Rutgers offense must assist the defense with ball security. The Scarlet Knights can't afford TOs that will put Temple on a short field. Rutgers has struggled to score all year. Too many promising drives have ended with TOs in scoring position. Rutgers can't afford to short-circuit its promising drives – they're too few and far between. The Scarlet Knights must not commit more than 2 TOs and must force more TOs than they commit.
2. Toughness. One thing that can be said of Head Coach Bobby Wallace's Temple Owls is that they are tough. The Owls may lack talent and depth. But they will hit the team lined up across from them. Temple manhandled Rutgers last year on both sides of the LOS. The Owls bludgeoned the Scarlet Knights into submission. The game was won and lost on the offensive and defensive lines. The 30-5 score didn't so much represent a talent gap between Rutgers and Temple as it did a toughness gap. If the Scarlet Knights have any hope of upsetting Temple, Rutgers must match the physical play of the tough Owls.
3. Focus. Mental focus has been one of the biggest problems with Schiano's team. The Scarlet Knights play inspired football against opponents they have little chance of beating – Miami, Virginia Tech, Syracuse (2001), and Tennessee. But Rutgers shows an unfortunate tendency for overconfidence against beatable opponents. Too often, Rutgers has come out flat in these winnable games. The results have ranged from disappointing to downright humiliating in losses to Connecticut, Temple, West Virginia, Villanova, Buffalo, and Syracuse (2002). The ability of a team – whose seniors have won 7 games in nearly four seasons – to overlook any opponent has been incomprehensible. If nothing else, the litany of 40+ point ass-whippings should have taught these players humility. They have yet to show it. If the Scarlet Knights overlook Temple, the Owls will be only too glad to help Rutgers resume the position.
4. Control the Defensive Line of Scrimmage. Rutgers' OLine has continued to be a festering sore on the team. And Temple's DLine – led by 1st Team All-Big East DL Dan Klecko – is the strength of a tough defense. So, Rutgers' prospects for controlling the offensive LOS are bleak. However, Temple does not possess a formidable edge on the other side of the ball. Rutgers has received improved play from its DLine, the key to the better performance of the defense. Meanwhile, the Owl OLine is still a suspect unit. The Scarlet Knight DLine suffered a major blow when So DE Ryan Neill suffered a season-ending knee injury against Miami. The surviving members of the DLine must control the LOS. They must allow LBs Gary Brackett, Brian Bender, and Brian Hohmann to make tackles. The Rutgers DL must penetrate into the Owl backfield and disrupt plays. If Rutgers can't control the defensive LOS, the defense will yield too many points for the weak offense to overcome. Temple ran over Rutgers last year, gaining 193 yards on 45 carries. Much of that damage was done up the middle. That can't happen again.
5. Pass Protection. Last season, Veterans Stadium looked like a training ground for matadors. Tackling sleds would have offered more resistance against the pass rush of the Owl DLine. QB Ryan Cubit was under assault the entire game and took a frightful beating. Temple recorded 5 sacks and countless knockdowns. Dan Klecko spent the afternoon in the Rutgers backfield. Under such duress, QBit completed only 17 of 41 passes and threw 3 INTs. Schiano has announced that true Fr Ryan Hart will start in place of the injured QBit. Rutgers likely will struggle to run against the stout Owls rush defense. Therefore, Rutgers must throw to move the football. The passing game must set up the running game. However, the Scarlet Knights won't be able to capitalize upon a suspect Owl secondary if Hart doesn't have time to throw and can't remain upright. The Rutgers OLine must keep the Temple DLine off of Hart and give the freshman time to find his receivers.
1. Jr LT Mike Williamson. Frustrated with the performance of the OLine against Syracuse, Schiano replaced Sr Trohn Carswell with Jr Mike Williamson as the starting LT against Miami. Williamson is still listed as the starting LT on the two-deep roster for the Temple game. With a shortage of DEs on his roster in summer camp, Bobby Wallace moved former DT Dan Klecko outside to DE, from where his is now wreaking havoc. While Wallace moves Klecko around on the DLine in search of the best personnel matchup, Klecko likely will line up most frequently at right DE opposite Williamson. Last year, Klecko recorded 7 tackles, 4 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 4 QB hurries, and one fumble recovery against Rutgers. Williamson likely will not outplay the consensus all-conference DL. However, Williamson must minimize the disruption that Klecko can cause in an offensive backfield. Klecko must not be allowed a repeat performance.
2. Fr QB Ryan Hart. For the 13th time in 21 games, Schiano will start a true freshman at QB. Ryan Cubit has not yet recovered from a hyperextended elbow that he suffered against Syracuse. Having burned Hart's redshirt against Syracuse, Schiano has made the commitment to play the youngster, who saw action in all but three series against #1 ranked Miami. Hart now faces the challenge of leading Rutgers in perhaps its last winnable game of the season. Not only must Hart lead the offense, but he must carry the offensive burden with his passing. Hart can't expect the running game to take pressure off of him. He will have to take the pressure off the running game. Since the TO battle likely will decide the game, Hart must minimize his mistakes. In three quarters against Miami, Hart threw only one INT. He threw a second INT during the 4th Quarter while playing catch-up against the powerful Hurricanes. Hart must avoid sacks and INTs. Sacks will kill drives. INTs will set Temple up on a short field. Play smart. Play conservative. Don't force the action. Keep Rutgers in the game late and force Temple to make plays to win the game. Hart must complete at least 50% of his passes for at least 230 passing yards.
3. RS Sr TE L.J. Smith. Smith has had a rough senior campaign. He missed summer camp with a knee injury and hobbled through disappointing losses to Villanova and Buffalo. Smith suffered an ankle sprain against Pittsburgh and a mild knee injury against West Virginia that have hampered him. Smith has seen his hopes for an All-Big East season diminish amid injuries and competition around the conference from Miami's Kellen Winslow and Pittsburgh's Kris Wilson. L.J. wasn't much of a factor against Miami. In order to beat Temple, Rutgers needs a big game from its best player. L.J. must be the primary target for QB Ryan Hart. Smith must produce 8 catches and 100 receiving yards to spark the offense.
4. Sr WR Josh Hobbs. Hobbs has surprisingly emerged as the leading WR with 19 receptions for 257 yards. Hobbs has been a common denominator in many of the occasional offensive flashes this season. He possesses the size and strength to run slant and crossing routes inside. These routes force the LBs to honor their pass coverage responsibilities. Hobbs' presence inside also creates more opportunities for other WRs on the outside. With Sr Aaron Martin having a disappointing season, Hobbs has become a "go-to" receiver. As with L.J., Rutgers needs a big game from Hobbs to fuel the passing game. He needs to have a 4-catch, 60-yard performance.
5. Jr CB Nate Jones. Jones has been the big playmaker for Rutgers this season. He has two 100-yard KORs for TDs against Tennessee and Syracuse. He also blocked an FGA against Syracuse. He further had a 105-yard INT return for a TD against Miami negated by the terrible officiating call. Jones is the #3 tackler and leads the team in solo tackles. Big special teams and defensive plays have helped to keep Rutgers competitive in several games. Jones often has been in the middle of such plays. He (or one of his defensive/special teams mates) must make a big play to score or setup a TD. The offense doesn't have the firepower to do it alone.
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