By Barbara Harrison
Temple opens its 2015 season on Sept. 5 against Penn State at the Linc, and hopes are higher on North Broad St. than they have been in a long time.
Year three of the Matt Rhule era begins with fanfare as Temple returns 17 starters, including all 11 on a defense that was one of the nation’s best. Rhule’s squad continues to show up as a contender for both the American Athletic Conference and East Division titles.
Should the Owls wind up in the middle of the AAC race, it will be because of a defense that yielded just 17.5 points per game last season, good enough for fourth in the nation. In today’s age of pass-happy, up-tempo spread offenses, great defenses are often hard to find. Rhule and the Owls have one that returns most of the roster’s two-deep from a year ago.
It all starts with All-America candidates Praise Martin-Oguike and Tyler Matakevich. Martin-Oguike, a 6-2, 250-pound senior, is a ball-hawking defensive end who tallied 9.5 tackles-for-loss last season, including a team-high seven sacks. Matakevich (6-1, 235) was the team’s leading tackler with 102.5 stops in 2014. He has the opportunity to become just the seventh player in the history of the NCAA to record four straight seasons of 100-plus tackles in his career.
A big key last year for the Owls defense was the play of its secondary, which returns intact. Tavon Young (5-10, 180) is a senior cornerback and leader of the defense’s back four. Young had four interceptions in 2014 playing in a defensive backfield that was very good at preventing the big play. The secondary was a big reason why Temple ranked ahead of such prominent defensesas LSU, Alabama, and Penn State in the points yielded department.
What Rhule and the rest of the Owl faithful need to see in 2015 is a big improvement on the offensive side of the ball. When P.J. Walker took over at quarterback last season, it appeared as if the Temple offense was headed for great things. When the Owls opened the season 4-1, the 6-1, 200-pound Walker was one of the reasons why. In the team’s last seven games, however, Walker managed to complete just 47 percent of his passes, and the offense failed to score more than 20 points in each of those contests.
Still, there is confidence in the junior QB who did complete 203-of-381 for 2,317 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Walker, along with former high school teammate Jahad Thomas, are the Owls top returning rushers. That may not be saying much though for a team that finished 118th in the nation in rushing offense. Temple managed just 107.8 yards per game in 2014. If Rhule and company truly wish to be a contender, the run game will have to improve.
Temple may be able to take advantage of a favorable schedule to win an AAC East title. The Owls will face both Memphis and Central Florida at home at Lincoln Financial Field and do not face Houston. Tulane, SMU, and UConn are on the schedule, teams that combined for just four conference wins in 2014. The Owls even get nonconference opponents Penn State and Notre Dame at home.
With a stellar defense and an improving offense, 2015 could be a historic year for Temple football. An Eastern Division title and an AAC championship game berth are within reach.