WRITTEN BY TOM HANSLIN @tomhanslin
PHILADELPHIA – Temple head coach Matt Rhule doesn’t tend to overreact to slow starts on offense, just as long as the defense pulls its own weight in the meantime.
Standing by a notion that the Owls’ chief strength derives from the defensive side, Rhule hopes to see more energy and pressure from his players on Saturday afternoon while facing Southern Methodist (2-2) in Temple’s American Athletic Conference opener at Lincoln Financial Field.
Despite escaping with a 60-40 shootout victory in Dallas last November, Temple (2-2) allowed four offensive touchdowns and 397 total yards to the Mustangs. Rhule expects SMU to generate similar numbers this Saturday.
“We anticipate them being a great offense,” Rhule said after his weekly post-practice press conference on Tuesday.
“I know the amount of juice that they’re going to have, the amount of swagger that they’re going to have. Last year our kids wanted to talk, wanted to talk back. That’s not our team. This week, we better come out and we better play because SMU is a really good football team.”
Rhule cited two of the Mustangs’ first half battles between nationally ranked Big 12 teams, No. 13 Baylor and No. 21 TCU. SMU didn’t have enough juice to stay competitive later in those games. However, the Mustangs were tied 6-6 with Baylor at halftime in their second game of the year, and just last week, TCU only led 6-3 after 30 minutes.
But Temple’s biggest challenge will be defending wide receiver Courtland Sutton, a 6-foot-4 sophomore who has already collected four touchdowns on 18 receptions for 449 yards receiving this season.
“He’s one of the best receivers in the country,” Rhule said of Sutton, who currently leads the country in yards per catch (24.9) amongst receivers with at least 15 catches. “He’s a legitimate national award-winning receiver.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Ben Hicks will command the Mustangs’ offense, as senior quarterback Matt Davis suffered a season-ending knee injury in SMU’s opening game. In four games, Hicks has thrown seven interceptions, and hasn’t completed a touchdown pass since Sept. 10.
Along with a few positive strides on offense, SMU’s performances on defense have also shown improvement. The Mustangs lead the nation with 10 interceptions while allowing 27 points per game, an 18.5 point drop from last year’s finish.
“Defensively, the job that they’ve done is remarkable,” Rhule said.
“They’re one of the best in the country at taking the ball away. They play with a lot of swagger on defense, they’ll get in your face, they’ll talk to you when you’re playing, and we better be ready for all that energy and juice they provide.”
Temple quarterback Phillip Walker, who has thrown for 846 yards and five touchdowns in four games, isn’t blind to SMU’s front pressure and versatile secondary as well.
“They’re fast and take the ball away and make plays,” Walker said.
Contrary to last season, Temple has relied upon its offense for bailouts in 2016. But Rhule believes that his players are turning the corner, stressing the importance of creating defensive pressure in the trenches.
“I was really kind of upset with our sack numbers,” Rhule said.
“We’re number one in the country right now in pass defense. People haven’t really thrown the ball down the field. They’re kind of getting the ball out of their hands, so we’ll be tested this week. We’re going to have to see what we can do coverage wise and we’re going to have to find a way to manufacture some pressure.”
The Owls go into Saturday’s game looking to own a winning record for the first time in 2016.