WRITTEN BY TOM HANSLIN @tomhanslin
In the last two games where Temple’s defense lacked consistency and reliability, the Owls returned to old ways on Saturday, in a game where a victory was essential to keep championship dreams alive.
No. 21 Memphis, who averaged 43.9 points per game prior to entering Lincoln Financial Field, were held to a measly four field goals, as the Owls dominated the Tigers in a convincing fashion, 31-12.
“That’s Temple defense right there. We had it in us all along,” said Senior Tyler Matakevich.
The Owls opened the afternoon on offense, and after driving 48 yards to the Tigers’ 28 yard line, halfback Jahad Thomas fumbled on the first down, which was recovered on the ground by Memphis.
After a Tigers’ three and out, Temple marched down the field once again, but on a first down at Memphis’ 20, Quarterback P.J. Walker underthrew a pass intended for Robby Anderson, which was intercepted by Reggis Ball at the 1 yard line. It was the Owls’ second turnover in a span of three minutes.
On Memphis’ second offensive drive, Quarterback Paxton Lynch generated an 87-yard drive on 15 plays, which resulted in a 31-yard field goal made by Jake Elliott to hand the Tigers the 3-0 lead at the 3:34 mark in the first quarter.
With 12:24 left in the second, Memphis brought their field goal unit out once again, as Elliott drilled his second field goal, a 46-yarder to increase the Tigers’ lead to 6-0.
On the ensuing drive, Temple marched downfield for a 75-yard drive of their own, which resulted in a 13-yard touchdown catch by Romond Deloatch, giving the Owls the lead, 7-6, midway through the second.
The Owls’ defense forced another three and out for Memphis, and on Temple’s next possession, Walker connected with Brandon Shippen on third down for a breakout gain of 49 yards, placing the ball inside the redzone. On second down at the 14, Walker handed the ball off to David Hood, who broke three tackles to cross the plain for Temple’ second touchdown. Hood’s second career score increased the Owls’ lead to 14-6 with 4:36 left in the half.
In the closing minutes, Elliott managed to drill his third field goal on the day, this time from 44 yards deep to cut the Memphis deficit to five, 14-9 heading into halftime.
Memphis failed to convert on the third quarter’s opening drive, and were forced to punt for the second time. Temple also struggled to gain a first down after the switch of possession, and on fourth down, Alex Starzyk’s punt was blocked by Wynton McManis, handing Memphis the ball at the Owls’ 21.
On another Tigers’ fourth down, Elliott was sent out, but on this 36-yard attempt, the ball struck the right upright, forcing a turnover on downs.
On first down for the Owls at their own 20, Memphis was called for a roughing the passer penalty, and officials ejected Tigers’ Jackson Dillon for his late hit ruled as targeting. On a fourth and short near midfield, Temple elected to keep the offense on the field, but they were stopped short by Memphis once again, forcing another turnover on downs.
Temple’s defense continued to contain Lynch, and on a fourth down from the Owls’ 22, Elliott nailed his fourth field goal from 39 yards deep to trim the Owls’ lead to 14-12 with 3:41 remaining in the third.
The ensuing Owls’ drive saw Walker connect with Ventell Bryant for a 31-yard completion, setting Temple up at Memphis’ 28 yard line. On a third and short from the 23, Walker tossed to Anderson for eight yards, and on the first play of the fourth quarter, Kip Patton rushed into the endzone for a 13-yard touchdown, increasing the Owls’ lead to 21-12.
After a kick out of bounds from Tyler Mayes, Memphis set up shop at their own 35, but the Owls defensive front forced pressure in the pocket, and forced Spencer Smith’s fourth punt.
With the ball placed at Temple’s 20, the Owls’ offense continued to run the ball, and found their way into Tigers’ territory. After an incomplete pass intended for Bryant on third down, Austin Jones was sent out to attempt a 35-yard field goal, which split the uprights to place the score at 24-12 with 5:25 left in regulation. The Owls’ drive lasted nearly eight minutes.
Lynch’s offense continued to struggle late, and after another turnover on downs, Walker found Saladeem Major for a 19-yard touchdown pass, tacking on the final points in the Owls’ must-win contest.
Lynch, who is considered one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, was limited to only 156 passing yards and no touchdowns. Temple’s defensive front created havoc in the pocket, where Lynch was sacked twice. Memphis was also limited to 76 rushing yards, a season-low.
“We have a great defensive system,” said Temple head coach Matt Rhule. “We have great defensive players, and they united today. They worked together and I think you saw the results.”
While the Tigers’ offense was nonexistent, the Owls’ offense was predominantly present, as Quarterback P.J. Walker completed 14 of 26 passing attempts for two touchdowns and one interception. His first touchdown, which came in the second quarter, tied him with Henry Burris on Temple’s all-time list with 49 touchdown passes. In the fourth quarter, Walker threw No. 50, placing him in first place.
Halfback Jahad Thomas was also limited in playing time and on total carries, which allowed contributions from freshmen David Hood and Jager Gardner, who combined for 104 yards and a touchdown in Thomas’ absence. Wide receiver Kip Patton also had a carry, which resulted in his first rushing touchdown of his career.
Temple’s offense finished with 25 converted first downs, compared to Memphis’ 13, and outscored the Tigers in total yards, 461-232. The Owls also played discipline football, responsible for only one penalty, which came in the game’s opening drive. The Tigers were charged with eight penalties, which resulted in 79 yards lost.
“We don’t beat ourselves,” said linebacker Nate D. Smith. “We wanted to change that. If we do our job, we can do a lot.”
The victory improved the Owls to 9-2 on the year, who remain one win away from clinching the East division for a spot in the American Athletic Conference title game.
“We can’t put that game on a pedestal,” said Smith. “If we do, then we’re going to start doing things that are uncharacteristic.”
Prior to Saturday’s contest in Philadelphia, South Florida defeated Cincinnati on Friday night, meaning that the Owls still hold a one-game lead on the Bulls in the East division standings.
“Going to the championship will come down to next week,” said Rhule. “I don’t want to slide into a championship game. I don’t want someone else to lose.”
After Temple’s win, Connecticut shocked the nation with a 20-17 upset over No. 13 Houston, which leaves the West division up for grabs between Houston and No. 19 Navy next Saturday for a title game berth. While the West division holds a decisive game, the East will hold the same, as Temple welcomes in Connecticut in a must-win contest to reach the conference championship.
“This a phenomenal win, but we’ve got UConn next week,” said Matakevich. “I know we’re not in the conference championship yet, so I know we need next week.”