DOBBS WATCH ’09
I don’t presume to speak for all Navy fans, but if there was one thing we were all hoping at the beginning of this season, it was for an end to the weekly quarterback injury shuffle. So much for that. While Ricky Dobbs was able to participate in some light drills in practice this week, the coaches were reluctant to have him go full speed. Instead, they’re targeting next week’s trip to South Bend for Ricky’s return, which means for the second week in a row, Ivin Jasper will be tossing the keys of his offense to Kriss Proctor.
I’ve seen a lot of chatter this week about how this is a great idea, since Notre Dame is a more important game than Temple. Really? I couldn’t disagree more… Not about the part that it’s a good idea, but about to the relative importance of the two games. Notre Dame is more critical to play from a big-picture perspective, considering the financial, visibility, and recruiting benefits, but the program sees these benefits whether the team beats Notre Dame or not. Navy will probably never be favored to beat Notre Dame without a fundamental change in the framework of college football; the Irish just have a completely different kind of program. Temple, on the other hand, is more of a fair fight. Taking care of business against comparable opposition makes it possible for Navy to schedule “reach” games like Notre Dame and Ohio State without jeopardizing their annual goals of a winning season and a bowl berth. Given a choice, I’d much, much rather have Navy closer to 100% against Temple than Notre Dame. Navy isn’t the kind of team than can afford to put anything less than their best lineup on the field every week.
The question, then, is whether Ricky at 75% is better than Kriss Proctor at 100%. After the sophomore did an admirable job running the offense against Wake Forest, the answer would seem to be “no.” It’s not that Proctor played a mistake-free game, but his mistakes were of the variety that can be corrected over the course of a week– stuff like dropping back too deep on QB draws and not holding onto the damn ball. When it came to recognizing defensive alignments, checking to the right plays, and reading his keys, Proctor was fine. Not perfect, obviously, but neither is Ricky. This confidence in Kriss’ ability allows the coaches to take their time with Ricky instead of rushing him back before he’s ready, making his injury a nagging problem for the rest of the year. A repeat of the 2008 QB-go-round is something nobody wants. Dobbs will be dressed for the game, but only as an emergency backup. If a repeat of last year’s 4th-quarter masterpiece is to take place, it will be by the hand of a different artist.
Of course, one would hope that this year’s contest doesn’t come down to last-minute heroics. With both teams showing significant improvement this season, though, one can’t rule out the possibility. As a program, everything seems to finally be coming together for Temple. The Owls were once the punching bag of the Big East, compiling a record of 30-124 in the 14 years they were a member of the conference. The school was paid about $2 million per year by the Big East, thanks mostly to bowl and television revenue. The annual ballet of futility that was Temple football, without any apparent plan to improve the situation, gave Big East presidents the impression that the school was just using the conference for cash rather than making an effort to improve the overall product. Feeding that impression was the fact that Temple was the Big East’s lone football-only member, with its other sports– most notably basketball– remaining in the Atlantic 10. In an effort to consolidate money and improve the on-field product, the league’s school presidents decided that 2004 would be Temple’s last in the Big East. The problem, though, is that they made this decision in 2001. Temple head coach Bobby Wallace was now the captain of a ship without a rudder, unable to tell recruits about the long-term future of the program. Nobody wants to commit to uncertainty. To compensate, Wallace was forced to rely on players that weren’t concerned with the long term– junior college transfers. Wallace only had to sell them on two years in most cases rather than four, and could offer immediate playing time. From 2002-2005, Wallace brought in 45 JUCO transfers, more than half of the 86 total recruits he signed during that period. It worked to a limited extent; it isn’t as if the Owls were completely devoid of talent. It’s no way to build a program, though. As a group, JUCO transfers drop out of school at a higher rate than other recruits. Temple was not immune to this phenomenon, and was in fact penalized last year by the NCAA for low APR scores. On a more fundamental level, the importance of having players in your system for 4+ years cannot be understated. Navy fans have seen this first hand, not only at our own school, but in opponents like Wake Forest. Wallace resigned after the 2005 season.
Temple chose Virginia defensive coordinator Al Golden to lead the Temple football charge into its new MAC home. Golden, who became the second-youngest head football coach in Division I-A, was seen as the energetic spark that the program needed to recruit the kind of players needed to build a program. It took a few years, but it would appear that the move to a new coach and a new conference have been a success. A traditionally Midwestern league, the MAC isn’t the most natural fit geographically for Temple, and is made up of mostly rural and suburban schools that don’t look much like Temple’s downtown Philadelphia campus. What it offers, though, is a chance for the Owls to compete against athletic departments and budgets that are much more comparable to their own. After suffering through a 1-11 debacle in Golden’s first year, Temple has gradually improved each season, and now sits at 5-2 for the first time since Wayne Hardin coached the team in 1981. That record includes a 4-0 mark in the conference, putting Temple on track for a berth in the MAC championship game and the potential for the program’s first conference title since 1967, when they were still in the NCAA’s small-college division.
The Owls are led by running back Bernard Pierce. Representative of the kind of player with which Temple is trying to build their program, 6-0, 212-pound freshman is in the top 15 in the nation in rushing, averaging 109 yards per game. After struggling through season-opening losses to Villanova and Penn State, Golden decided to put the offense on Pierce’s shoulders. He responded with 116 yards on 20 carries against last year’s MAC champ, Buffalo. Temple hasn’t lost since, and extended their winning streak to 5 games with a 40-24 pounding of Toledo last week. Pierce carried the ball 40 times, gained 212 yards, and scored three touchdowns. He is the alpha and omega of the Temple offense, and stopping him will be a challenge for the Mids. It’s a challenge they’ve risen to once before. Pierce is the third-leading rusher in the country among freshmen. Leading that category is Pitt’s Dion Lewis, who the Mids were able to hold to only 79 yards. In fact, after the first drive of the game, Lewis was a non-factor. Unfortunately, quarterback Bill Stull was, completing 17 of 24 passes for 245 yards and a touchdown in leading the Panthers to a win. Navy’s game plan will undoubtedly be to force Temple QB Vaughn Charlton to do the same. After throwing for 317 yards in the loss to Villanova, Charlton hasn’t thrown nearly as much since then, averaging only 128 ypg and completing a mere 51% of his passes during the winning streak. Stopping the run and forcing the pass sounds like a good idea, but it’s a lot easier said than done. While the Mids were able to stop Lewis, Pitt’s straight-ahead, north-south running attack is a lot different from Temple’s 3-receiver, spread-out scheme that uses more zone blocking. Western Kentucky and SMU both had some success running the ball against the Mids with a similar philosophy. On the other hand, they also brought other weapons to the table; WKU with the legs of QB Kawaun Jakes, and SMU with the run & shoot passing game. For Temple, it’s Pierce or bust.
Pierce gets the headlines, but Temple’s defense is no slouch. They’re 33rd nationally, allowing a shade over 319 yards per game, and 15th against the run. Navy were able to move the ball well enough last year, gaining 293 yards on the ground and averaging 5 yards per carry. Like the Wake Forest game, Navy was hampered by a slew of little things; Temple simply prevented the big play, didn’t overpursue, and waited for the Mids to make a mistake. Usually, the offense complied. The majority of the game was spent running to the strong side of either the heavy formation or the unbalanced line, with the extra blocker helping the tackle block the middle linebacker. You’ll recall that several of Navy’s opponents that lined up in a 4-3 (Duke and Pitt, for example) liked to pinch the playside tackle to allow the MLB to get to the quarterback. Temple never really tried to, though, and it worked. Well, for 51 minutes, anyway. One wonders if Golden is confident enough with last year’s game plan to try it again. With improved play from both tackles making extra blockers less necessary in 2009, he’ll face a different look from Ivin Jasper this year.
This is a big game for both teams. For Temple, it’s simple; win, and they’re bowl-eligible, guaranteeing their first .500 or better season in a quarter century. On the cusp of their first bowl in 30 years and being in serious contention for a conference title can mean a significant boost in attendance, too, increasing revenue for a cash-strapped athletic department and putting them on the radar screen of mainstream Philadelphia sports. NO PRESSURE, GUYS. For Navy, one loss could turn into two pretty quickly with a trip to Notre Dame next week. With a 6-2 record, the Mids have a shot at a 10-win regular season; lose to Temple, and they’ll have to go through South Bend to get it. Not that beating Notre Dame is impossible, but you’d rather not have to.