You know, maybe I didn’t give Al Golden enough credit.
Golden was seen as something of a miracle worker for turning Temple into a winner, but I was never totally convinced. That put me in a very small minority. I mean, this is Temple we’re talking about. Before Golden went 9-4 and 8-4 in his last two seasons with the Owls, the last Temple coach to have back-to-back winning seasons was Wayne Hardin. Wayne Hardin! Golden was succeeding where coach after coach had failed. What kind of idiot wouldn’t be impressed by that? This kind, apparently.
It isn’t that I thought Golden was a bad coach. I just felt that timing had a lot to do with his success. Golden’s predecessor, Bobby Wallace, coached Temple during some of the program’s darkest times. Temple was kicked out of the Big East due to sagging attendance and a lack of institutional support for football. The program spent two years looking for a new conference home. There were very serious discussions about dropping football altogether, and Wallace was constantly having to answer questions about his own job security. How does a coach recruit in this kind of environment?
In Wallace’s case, the answer was to turn to the junior college ranks. While most high school seniors would be reluctant to commit to a program that might not even be around 4 years later, juco transfers would only be committing to a year or two, and Wallace could sell them immediate playing time. Unfortunately for Wallace, that’s no way to build a program. As time goes on, you have fewer and fewer players that have spent 4 years in the program learning the offensive and defensive systems. Temple actually sent more than a few players to the NFL over Wallace’s tenure, but the records never matched the talent. Wallace was fired, and Golden was hired to replace him.
Golden built Temple into a winner, but his was a very different program than the one his predecessor had to manage. Gone were the questions about job security and the future of the program, as the school’s administration voiced a renewed dedication to supporting football. Also gone was the uncertainty of independence; Temple found a new home in the MAC. As MAC members, Temple actually had some recruiting advantages for once. They offered a big-city experience different from anyone else in the conference. They played in a modern NFL stadium when most MAC facilities were unimpressive at best. MAC competition was far more manageable than the Big East was. There was finally some stability in the program. It seemed to me that Golden should have won at Temple under those circumstances.
But Golden was hired away by Miami, and Temple hasn’t been the same since. Steve Addazio led the Owls to 9 wins (including a bowl win) in 2011, the program’s high-water mark. He went 4-7 in his second season, but was still able to turn that first year into a new job at Boston College. His replacement is Matt Rhule, who led Temple to a 2-10 record last year. It looks like Temple has bottomed out again. Maybe Golden’s success was more than just a product of circumstance.
Maybe. The truth is that a lot of the stability that the program enjoyed under Golden has eroded. Temple is under its third head coach in 5 years, which kills recruiting. The athletic department has been forced to cut sports for budgetary reasons, which has renewed the old discussion about whether or not football is worth the cost. Now the university president is telling the media that the school might have to find a new place to play because they can’t afford the rent at Lincoln Financial Field. I’m not sure if that’s the case or if it’s just bluster in an effort to try to get a better deal, but either way it doesn’t make the school an easy sell for coaches in recruits’ living rooms. And with Temple leaving the MAC and joining a more competitive league in the American Athletic Conference, rebuilding is going to be a lot harder this time around.
Maybe we saw the first step in that rebuild last week, when Temple left Nashville with a 37-7 win over Vanderbilt. Certainly any time a team goes into an SEC stadium and walks away with a 30-point win, it’s noteworthy. I’m not sure this game serves as an indicator of Temple’s resurgence, though. Vanderbilt’s 7 (!) turnovers, while certainly caused in part by Temple’s opportunistic defense, aren’t a gift that the Owls will receive every week. Temple’s average starting field position in the 2nd quarter was the Vanderbilt 36 yard line. While Temple outgained Vanderbilt 351-278, that’s because the Owls ran 18 more plays than the Commodores thanks to the turnovers. Even with a paltry 278 yards of offense, Vanderbilt actually averaged more yards per play than Temple (4.4 vs. 4.3). Temple only managed to convert 2 of 17 3rd downs. This was not an offensive showcase for either team.
That’s not to say that Temple doesn’t have any talent. Their offense will look a lot different from the last time these two teams met. Replacing Al Golden’s two-TE, one-back pro-style set is a more conventional spread offense– or as Paul Johnson likes to call it, the “NCAA offense.” At the controls of this offense is quarterback PJ Walker. Walker started the last 7 games of 2013 and led Temple to their two wins, throwing for 2084 yards and 20 TDs. That’s not bad for only half a season’s work. With a full spring as Temple’s starter, the sophomore Walker is expected to make a big leap this year. He’s athletic– more quick than fast– and has a strong arm. He’s the kind of guy that would probably do a good job in Navy’s offense, at least from a physical standpoint. Running backs Kenneth Harper and Zaire Williams combined for over 1100 yards on the ground in 2013, with Harper adding another 241 yards through the air to go along with 11 combined TDs.
There’s talent on the Temple defense, too. The linebackers are probably the best unit on the team, led by OLB Tyler Matakevich. Matakevich earned first team All-AAC honors last season after leading the nation with 8.8 solo tackles per game. Patrolling the middle of the field is MLB Nate Smith, who started the second half of last season and recorded 38 tackles and 3 sacks in that span. He also returned a fumble for a TD. With the trouble that Navy had with Ohio State’s MLB, Smith might be a player to watch for if Temple uses a similar scheme.
Temple’s problems are less about talent and more about experience. The coaching turnover has led to some pretty thin recruiting classes, which means there are only 8 seniors on Temple’s entire roster. They have 21 freshmen and sophomores listed on the two-deep depth chart alone; 23 if you count the freshmen at punter and kicker. The offensive line is one of the least experienced in the country. Kyle Friend is as good a center as Navy will face this year, but his supporting cast entered the season with only 5 career starts between them. One of them was playing defensive end at this time last year. The offensive line isn’t the only unit that’s a work in progress, either; both the wide receivers and the secondary are getting newcomers up to speed as well.
That should probably tell us a little about how this game is going to go. PJ Walker isn’t immune to throwing interceptions; those 20 TDs in half a season were accompanied by 8 passes that went to the wrong team. With another inexperienced offensive line in front of them, we will probably see the Navy defense employ the same kind of game plan we saw last week: dial up the pressure a bit to force a young quarterback into making mistakes. Temple has some talent, but it isn’t Ohio State talent. If the Mids were able to able to get into the backfield against an inexperienced Ohio State line, in theory they should be able to do the same against Temple. Being able to do so will go a long way in stopping the Owls. Temple will use formations that spread the defense, then run up the middle (with a little option for good measure) to draw the defense back to the center of the field. Once that happens, they’ll throw bubble screens outside to take advantage of the drawn-in defense. After a few bubble screens the safeties will start cheating up to stop it, and that’s when the Owls will take their shots downfield. But if Navy can get pressure rushing only 3 or 4, it will free up the rest of the defense to cover the entire field instead of cheating to stop the run and the short passes. That’s a big “if;” having success against Ohio State is no guarantee for success this week. Still, I think this is the best Navy defensive line in a long time, and I’m confident that they’ll be up to the task.
Temple’s defensive coordinator is Phil Snow, who came to Philadelphia by way of Eastern Michigan. He’s seen his share of option offenses, having faced Army with mixed success. EMU was 1-1 against Army while Snow was DC, although Army’s offense had a field day in both games. The Black Knights averaged 361 rushing yards and nearly 35 points in those two games, as Snow employed the 4-4 cover 3 look we see so often. Snow had more success against Army last season, with Temple earning a 33-14 victory. Temple held the Black Knights to only 255 yards rushing, but it’s difficult to use that game as a gauge for Snow’s game plan because Army lost Angel Santiago early in the 2nd quarter. With #2 QB AJ Schurr already out with an injury, Army was forced to juggle Kelvin White and Tevin Long the rest of the game. Four turnovers didn’t help, either. Unfortunately, I don’t have a recording of that game, but given the result I’m confident that Snow will use the same game plan tomorrow. If Navy’s coaches have that film, they’ll be prepared.
Inexperienced teams like Temple usually struggle against Navy, at least defensively. Defending the Navy offense requires a discipline that a lot of younger teams don’t have. That’s no guarantee that Navy will win this game. Far from it; remember, there are two teams in this game that started their season against a Power 5 team, and Navy isn’t the one that’s 1-0. Still, Temple’s inexperience does make this a must-win game in a sense. The teams on the schedule are only going to get more seasoned as the year wears on. If Navy is going to have the season we want them to have, they need to take care of business against young teams like Temple.