Temple-Houston football preview

With a short week to prepare, Temple and Houston — two football programs at crossroads in their respective seasons — will cross each other’s paths in an American Athletic Conference showdown Friday night at TDECU Stadium. The Owls (4-1, 2-0 AAC) are already off to one of the best starts in program history — they’re 4-1 for only the second time since 1979.

With a short week to prepare, Temple and Houston — two football programs at crossroads in their respective seasons — will cross each other’s paths in an American Athletic Conference showdown Friday night at TDECU Stadium.

The Owls (4-1, 2-0 AAC) are already off to one of the best starts in program history — they’re 4-1 for only the second time since 1979.

A fifth win during this formidable portion of its schedule would cement Temple’s spot in the race for the AAC crown, not to mention pull the program to within a single victory of bowl eligibility. On the other sideline, Houston (3-3, 1-1 AAC) is back to .500 for the third time in 2014 after winning at Memphis last week.

Despite struggling to tread water thus far, a victory would give the Cougars a winning record for the first time all year and possibly provide them with an outside chance to threaten for conference supremacy.

Fans on both sides can hope for error-free football considering the importance of this nationally-televised game (ESPNU). However, turnovers could very well decide the outcome.

Temple and Houston are both adept at forcing opponents into costly mistakes via the turnover. Temple’s bally-hooed defense didn’t record a turnover against Tulsa last week while the offense committed two, causing the Owls to lose their claim to the No. 1 turnover margin in the country. Still, the Owls’ margin remains impressive at plus-eight, which is good enough for the No. 3 national ranking in the statistic.

Most importantly, Temple is making better use of the turnovers it forces than every team in FBS. The 17 total takeaways have resulted in 79 points for the Owls.

“The (Temple players) now really understand and are very comfortable in the scheme they’re running,” Houston head coach Tony Levine said. “(Temple senior linebacker) Tyler Matakevich is as good of a defensive player as we will face all season. I want to say he led the NCAA in solo tackles last year as a sophomore. It’s one of those things where you put the film on and if you don’t know where the ball is, just find number 8 for Temple and he will bring it to you. He’s around it on every snap."

In recent seasons, Houston has staked a sizable portion of its on-field reputation to forcing turnovers, too. The Cougars forced Memphis into five giveaways last week, allowing them to extend their streak of consecutive games with a turnover to 30.

Yes, that’s right — 30 consecutive games with at least one turnover. Temple head coach Matt Rhule was impressed when he saw that nugget of information, too.

"This stat is unbelievable,” Rhule said Tuesday during his weekly press conference. “They’ve got 19 (turnovers) this year — that’s about three per game… As good as they are at everything else, they are experts at taking away the football. So, we need to do a great job of protecting the football if we want to have a chance in this game.”

Houston’s turnover margin isn’t nearly as impressive as Temple’s since the Cougars have also turned the ball over 16 times. That equates to a plus-three turnover margin and a pedestrian No. 30 national ranking (Houston is part of a 13-way tie for the No. 30 spot on that list).

Injury bug bites Houston hard

For Houston, the short week of preparation included reshuffling its defensive lineup due to injuries sustained during the Memphis game. Linebacker Derrick Matthews, the active leader in career tackles in FBS, tore his ACL in the game and is unlikely to play again this season.

Houston also lost starting corner Lee Hightower to a leg injury that will sideline him for several weeks, Levine said. Prior to sustaining the injury, Hightower returned an interception for a touchdown that aided the Cougars’ come-from-behind win against Memphis.

Matthews was one of Rhule’s favorite student-athletes to compete against in the AAC and the Temple coach had words of praise and encouragement for the injured linebacker.

"He’s an outstanding football player. He’s a great kid. He’s a captain,” Rhule said of Matthews. "For them, he’s just everything that the conference should be about… He’s exactly why college football is supposed to be played. He’s a senior and I know his season — probably his career — is over, other than going onto the next level. But I have a lot of respect for him… I look forward to hopefully seeing him before the game.”

Last time out

Temple erased a 24-21 fourth-quarter deficit on the strength of two P.J. Walker touchdown passes and stout defense in the final period. Temple, co-leaders in the AAC standings through five games, stymied the Golden Hurricane on several fourth-quarter drives, forcing consecutive three-and-outs at one point.

Through five games, the Owls’ defense has allowed just three points in the fourth quarter. Matakevich finished with a game-high 14 tackles and two tackles for loss. Walker went 11-of-21 passing in the game for 202 yards and two interceptions while Jahad Thomas carried eight times for 98 yards.

Houston was facing a halftime deficit and a strong pro-Memphis crowd of 32,784 at the Liberty Bowl, but the Cougars managed to escape with a 28-24 victory that evened its overall and conference records.

“We are proud of our young men in our program, our staff and coaches,” Levine said after the game. "We went on the road against a team that was in first place in our conference; a very good team in Memphis. We started slow, but finished fast.”

Houston's dual-threat quarterback Greg Ward Jr., ran for 95 yards and a score in the win while also completing 17-of-28 passes for 188 yards, a touchdown and an interception. The Cougars’ depth at the offensive skill positions was on full display as four players combined for 40 rushing attempts and six receivers hauled in at least one catch each.

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