Temple Owls head coach Matt Rhule said he would judge his defense against Tulsa’s air attack.
Maybe Rhule is nitpicking considering the success Temple has enjoyed on the defensive side of the ball this season, but regardless, he asserts that he needs to see more from the Owls defense before he buys into the hype being heaped on his highly rated defense.
Temple boasts gaudy defensive stats that compare favorably with national powerhouse programs, but Tulsa (1-4, 1-0 American Athletic Conference) has had success passing the ball and figures to be more competitive in that aspect of the game than Temple (3-1, 1-0 AAC) has experienced of late. For Rhule, that means Tulsa will be the new benchmark for grading his unit’s growth both this season and during his time at Temple.
On paper, all the indications are that Rhule is overseeing dramatic improvement in an Owls defensive unit that allowed almost 30 points per game in 2013 and produced just 13 turnovers during his first year. Temple has already surpassed last season’s turnover total with a haul of 17 and counting — good enough for the No. 1 turnover margin (plus-10) in FBS.
And scoring? The Owls are allowing a stingy 12 points per game. Overall, Temple ranks No. 12 in the nation in the total defense category.
What the box scores won’t reveal — and what Rhule was quick to mention during his Tuesday press conference leading up to Saturday’s homecoming tussle at Lincoln Financial Field — is that Temple has had a relatively easy time of controlling games against teams with limited offensive firepower.
The Owls’ signature win came during the first week of the season against a depleted and rebuilding Vanderbilt program. Temple also struggled with Navy’s quirky option offense in a loss to the Midshipmen, who have since fallen to 2-4.
Rhule likely realizes that bigger tests await the Owls, including Tulsa.
"We haven’t proven yet that we can stop the pass,” Rhule said. "We’ve faced some run-oriented teams and kind of made them one dimensional. They had to throw the ball a bit. We haven’t shown that we can stop that fast, no-huddle offense that gave us so much trouble last year.
"Tulsa was really one of the originators of that (offensive style). They throw the ball as well as anybody. As I told our team, they threw for almost 500 yards against Tulane, so they can throw the football. And we haven't proven that we can stop that yet, so it's a challenge to our defense to show that we've grown in that area since last year.”
Despite a losing record, Tulsa travels to Philadelphia with the No. 30-ranked passing offense in the country. Golden Hurricane’s sophomore signal-caller Dane Evans has accounted for all nine of the team’s touchdown passes, and the team is ripping off almost 290 yards per game through the air.
Evans has also thrown nine interceptions on the year, a trend that figures to play to Temple’s defensive strengths.
As concerned as Rhule is about Tulsa’s passing attack, though, Temple’s defense appears to have grabbed the attention of Golden Hurricane head coach Bill Blankenship, who raved about the Owls' improvement during his Tuesday press conference.
“(Temple is) obviously very good on defense,” Blankenship said. "They play with great passion and emotion and they are well-coached. But there is so much improvement from what you see from them at the middle to the end of the year last year… They play with what I would call a great motor up front. They move their defensive line around. They're very active. They are not going to overwhelm you size-wise, but they play with such energy. They're very comparable, I think, to the really good Boise State teams we've played in the past in terms of the type of defense they play.
"Coach Rhule's staff is in their second season, so they are getting things the way they need them to be. What you see is a maturing process take place. If I were to show you film of their defense the last three or four games last year compared to the first three or four it is night and day."
Blankenship also singled out Temple junior linebacker Tyler Matakevich for his exemplary performance dating back to last season, calling the player “hardcore.” Matakevich has followed up on a 2013 season in which he was second among all FBS players with more than 11 tackles per game with a team-leading 26 total tackles.
Opposing offenses have combined for a single passing score through four games against Temple, but Rhule said he will still continue to insist on better from a defense that he feels isn’t good enough yet.
After all, “good enough” against Tulsa this week might not be in the weeks to come as the competition gets tougher with back-to-back road tests against Houston and Central Florida before a Nov. 1 home bout with 19th-ranked East Carolina.
"They've got a lot of really good players, they face a tough schedule and I know we'll have them ready to play,” Rhule said. “Our focus is on our process this week, trying to get ready to play Temple football on Saturday."
Last time out
The Owls are coming off their second bye week of the season. They last saw competition in a Sept. 27 American Athletic Conference win at Connecticut. The Owls claimed the conference opener, 36-10. Temple recovered from a slow start and a small, 7-3 advantage at half by hanging 23 points on UConn in the third quarter.
Owls’ junior defensive back Tavon Young recorded the second-longest interception return in school history when he ended UConn’s opening drive with an interception that he took 93 yards to open the scoring. The Owls defense lit the scoreboard again in the third quarter when Matakevich recorded a safety on one of his team-leading seven tackles.
Tulsa trailed for almost the entirety of its 42-17 loss at Colorado State last week. Evans scored on a 1-yard run to cut Colorado State’s lead to 28-7 but that was as close as the Golden Hurricane would get after falling behind early. Blankenship conceded there were precious few positives to take from the loss.
“It didn't feel like we fought hard the entire game because we got behind again,” Blankenship said. "One of the Achilles' heels for us this season has been slow starts for us both on offense and defense. That's something we're continuing to improve. I've still got hair, but I've been pulling a lot of it out trying to figure out what we can do to crank it up.”
Quarterback controversy at Tulsa?
Blankenship is standing by Evans despite drawing questions from the Tulsa media about possibly swapping the starting quarterback out due to his performance thus far in 2014.
“If we ever feel like Dane isn't the guy to help us win, then we'll make that change (at quarterback),” Blankenship said during his Wednesday press conference. "But I do think he is moving in the right direction. He continues to show some things."
In addition to nine touchdown passes and nine interceptions, Evans is 117-of-214 passing for 1,367 yards on the year. Through the first five games, Evans has maintained his lead on redshirt junior quarterback Joseph Calcagni for the starting job. Calcagni is 6-of-16 passing for 71 yards on the year. He has appeared in eight games in his Tulsa career including three this season.
Rhule said he expects a sizable turnout from former Temple players for Saturday’s homecoming celebration. Rhule, now in his second year as Temple’s head coach, said interest from former players planning to attend the noon kickoff spans across many Temple coaching tenures.
"I've been getting calls and texts from the guys that played under coach (Al) Golden (now at Miami (Fla.)) and coach (Steve) Addazio (now at Boston College) coming back, which is great. Some of the guys who played for coach (Wayne) Hardin and coach (Bruce) Arians all the way back. I know they'll all be there. They're always out there, which is awesome to see them. It's a fun time for us at homecoming and hopefully our team can play a way all those guys can be proud of."
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