This isn’t how things were supposed to be this year for the Temple Owls.
As Temple followers see things, they have all the pieces they need for a football renaissance falling into place. No longer do the Owls languish in the Big East, nor do they fight the uncertainty of being independent. No, Temple football is in its second season as a member of the MAC, a conference that they feel gives them a better chance to win. And why not? The competition isn’t as difficult as what they faced in the Big East. Philadelphia offers a big-city experience that’s unique in the conference. The team plays at Lincoln Financial Field, a facility that is not on campus, but is still the finest in the MAC. They have advantages now. To maximize these recruiting advantages, Temple went out and hired a young, energetic head coach in Virginia defensive coordinator Al Golden.
Depending on how much stock you put into recruiting rankings, Golden’s efforts on the recruiting trail have paid off. This is his third campaign with Temple, and after two years of bringing in some of the MAC’s most impressive (supposedly) recruiting classes, this is when it was all supposed to start paying off. Temple was 1-11 in their last year as an independent, but last year’s team went 4-4 in the MAC. Twenty-one starters return from that team, and the roster includes 26 juniors and 20 seniors. The time to realize their great potential has arrived!!!
…or not. Things haven’t turned out quite as expected. After going on the road and beating Army to start the season, Temple lost four straight. Now sitting at 3-5, the Owls have little room for error if they want to fight their way back to at least .500. How did it come to this? Having the country’s 118th-ranked offense sure doesn’t help. The Owls average only 251 yards per game of total offense. They have failed to gain 200 total yards in three games this year. Part of Temple’s offensive misery can be attributed to the loss of starting quarterback Adam DiMichele. After missing the last 5 games of 2007 due to injury, the hard-luck story for DiMichele has spilled into 2008. DiMichele had one of the finest performances of his career against Buffalo, throwing for 285 yards and 3 touchdowns while adding another 51 yards on the ground. But the senior didn’t have a chance to follow up that performance; on the first series of Temple’s next game, DiMichele was sacked by Penn State DE Aaron Maybin and suffered a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the next three weeks. Redshirt freshman Chester Stewart struggled to replace him, throwing seven interceptions in four games.
But let’s not deify DiMichele; Temple hasn’t exactly set the world on fire when he’s started, either. Despite having senior leaders in DiMichele and wide receiver Bruce Francis, the Owls can’t move the ball. The revolving door at running back seems to have stopped on freshman Kee-ayre Griffin, who has taken the bulk of the team’s carries over the last three weeks. Griffin had 22 carries for 85 yards and a TD last week against Ohio; easily the best rushing performance for any Temple RB this year, which should tell you something. The offensive line is anchored by as good a center as Navy will see this season, Alex Derenthal. The rest of the line hasn’t played as well. The Owls start two freshmen and a sophomore up front, and while they are definitely huge– Derenthal is the smallest starter at 298 pounds– they haven’t created many holes to run through. They also give up more than two and a half sacks per game. After a dominant performance last week, Nate, Matt, and Jabaree look like they’ll have some favorable matchups again tomorrow.
Even though Temple’s offense has been terrible, they still have a lot to play for. The best teams in the MAC– Ball State, Central Michigan, a rebounding Northern Illinois, and Western Michigan– are all in the West Division. At 2-3, Temple is still right in the thick of things in the East, trailing division-leading Akron by one game in the loss column. A berth in the MAC title game is still a very realistic goal. If Temple gets there, it’ll be on the back of its defense and special teams. The Owls’ scoring defense is ranked in the top 25 nationally, allowing only 18 points per game. Temple leads the country with 29 yards per kickoff return, and ran one back for a touchdown in the season opener against Army. How good are these units? As bad as their offense has been, the amazing thing is that Temple could easily be 5-3 right now. Buffalo needed a hail mary as time expired to steal a 30-28 win over the Owls. Temple took UConn to overtime, losing 12-9 in a game with questionable officiating that was played in a monsoon. At 3-5, people think “same ol’ Temple.” If they were 5-3, perceptions about this team and this defense would be completely different, and Temple football would be hailed as a cinderella story. What a difference two plays makes.
Temple’s defense is good, but if you asked me if they were better than, say, Wake Forest’s, the answer would be no. However, they did do some interesting things against Navy last year.
Determining who the quarterback reads in the triple option isn’t rocket science. If you & I can figure it out, don’t you think that defensive coaches can? And knowing that, shouldn’t they be able to find a way to confuse the quarterback? Well, they do. On a triple option play, the quarterback’s give key is the first player on the line of scrimmage lined up over or outside the B gap; usually a defensive end. The quarterback’s pitch key is the first player lined up either outside the give key, or within 5 yards behind him; usually a linebacker. Since they’re keys for the quarterback to read, both players go unblocked. So what if a defensive coordinator, knowing that both players wouldn’t be blocked, decided to switch things up? What if he sent the linebacker in to take the fullback, and had the defensive end take the quarterback? That’s called a cross charge, and it’s how Al Golden approached the option last year:
Both the playside and middle linebackers are focused on the fullback. The playside tackle’s assignment is the middle linebacker. If the MLB bites on the dive, then the tackle moves on to the next level to block a safety. The defensive end steps out and plays the quarterback. Kaipo reads the DE and pitches to Shun, who rolls for a 20-yard gain. If you’re thinking to yourself that there’s no way a defensive end would be fast enough to cover Kaipo or an A-back, you’re right. Shun averaged 15 yards per carry and led the team with 122 yards. Kaipo added 102 yards and a touchdown. The Mids ran for 361 yards, 268 of them coming from the quarterback and the slotbacks. With the change of assignments, the cross-charge is one of the more difficult reads for the quarterback to make. It’s what Ball State used to stop Jarod Bryant earlier this year. There’s no guarantee that Temple will do the same thing this year, but if they do then it’s a good time for Kaipo to come back to the starting lineup.
(Maybe the interesting thing is not that Temple used the cross charge, but that they never adjusted away from it.)
One thing about the cross charge is that the defensive end had better be disciplined. It’s hard to go unblocked and not charge into the mesh or take the fullback. But when he does that:
With nobody to take the quarterback, Kaipo runs free. It’s almost exactly like Kaipo’s long run in the Air Force game later in the season.
On what has to be the earlist Senior Day in years, everyone is eagerly anticipating Kaipo’s return. Can he run at full speed? Will he be in good enough shape to finish the game? Who knows. But it’s nice to have the team finally back at something reasonably close to full strength for the first time since the beginning of the Wake Forest game. We’re still waiting to see what they’re capable of.