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Team Report - TEMPLE

The SportsXchange

INSIDE SLANT

It is a daunting task any time Temple takes on a Southeastern Conference team -- but even more challenging when it's a program like Vanderbilt, which has won nine games in each of the previous two years.

But the Owls could pull off one of the bigger early-season surprises when they travel to Vanderbilt this Thursday to take on the Commodores and new head coach Derek Mason, who comes to Vanderbilt via Stanford as the former Cardinal defensive coordinator.

Owls' coach Matt Rhule has plunged himself and his staff into breaking down Stanford film to have an idea what they'll be facing in the Commodores.

"I think our guys are ready and we're going to take our best swing," Rhule said. "After going to Notre Dame to begin last year, no moment was bigger than that. It was good for our kids to experience that. Going down south, we'll have to deal with the heat, but some of our kids have had experiences they can draw back on. They can go back to the Notre Dame game and some have played at Penn State.

"I'm sure some of our freshmen will be scared, but we're in a different place now and we're trying to challenge our guys to face their fears. It's okay now to be afraid and nervous to play a game. It's a great way to start against an SEC team. The biggest issue is to focus on what we do and focus on us. If we learned one thing last year, it's we played some really good teams, but it's what we did that really determined whether we won or loss. We're trying to stick to our rules and who we are."

Who the Owls are is an unknown.

One major plus is the return of sophomore quarterback P.J. Walker, one of the best young quarterbacks in the country after throwing for over 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns last year.

The real problems could come up front.

"They're a real power team," Rhule said about Vanderbilt. "They're really strong on the offensive and defensive lines. They have four returning starters on their offensive line and their defensive line is big, all 305, 310 pounds in their 3-4. This will be a real challenge for our offensive and defensive lines. We came out of last season, we tried to build our d-line for our (American Athletic Conference), which is lighter and faster and more athletic, to deal with the pass rush. That will be one of the real storylines of this game, whether or offensive and defensive lines can really hang with these big people."

NOTES, QUOTES

PLAYERS TO WATCH

--QB P.J. Walker completed 152 out of 250 passes, for 2,084 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2013. His 151.5 passer rating was 22nd in the country.

--CB Sean Chandler, a true freshman, could see considerable playing time in the season opener on Thursday. He's shown a great knack for getting to the ball during the summer and if the Owls' secondary falters just a little, Rhule will not hesitate to put him in.

--C Kyle Friend is one of the better centers in the AAC. He's also the only offensive lineman with any experience returning for the Owls.

--WR Khalif Herbin may be asked to step in for starter John Christopher, who suffered a foot injury on Monday and could be questionable on Thursday. Herbin, a redshirt sophomore, could add speed to the Owls and someone who can stretch the field. If Christopher can't go, Herbin may be someone who can add a different dimension to the Owls' passing attack.

SERIES HISTORY: The series between Temple and Vanderbilt is tied at 1-1. The teams last met in 2006, when the Commodores defeated the Owls, 43-14, at Vanderbilt Stadium. The Owls beat Vanderbilt 6-3 in 1935.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're going to be really aggressive, I didn't come here not to be aggressive, so we're going to throw the ball and go out and try to win the game." -- Owls' coach Matt Rhule on the challenge of Vanderbilt.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

GAME BREAKDOWN

Scouting the running game: This is a risky area, considering Zaire Williams is out with an injury. Kenneth Harper will carry the bulk of the carries, and with Kyle Friend as the only player back with experience on the offensive line, it may force the Owls to place more on QB P.J. Walker to make plays. Temple will need to have semblance of a running attack to keep the Commodores off of Walker.

Scouting the passing game: This is one area where the Owls could actually have a strength over Vanderbilt. Sophomore quarterback P.J. Walker is the real deal. But can the Owls' inexperienced front give Walker time to get the ball down field? Also, swift tailback Zaire Williams is out due to an injury, giving the bulk of the carries to Kenneth Harper, a durable back, but someone without Williams' breakaway speed.

Scouting the run defense: A big concern here, considering the Owls will be giving up against a huge size disadvantage. Linebackers Nate Smith, who's been slowed this summer by a back issue, and leading tackler Tyler Matakevich will get a bulk of the work. It will be up to Temple's undersized defensive front, which features two 250-pound defensive ends, to hold off the large Commodore offensive front from reaching the second level. This could be a problem against Vandy.

Scouting the pass defense: The Owls had one of the nation's worst pass defenses in 2013, ranked 119th in the country giving up 298.6 yards a game. Rhule said he was unsure where to go with his cornerbacks. But the Temple depth chart says red-shirt senior Anthony Robey and junior Tavon Young will start against Vanderbilt. The Owls will need a pass rush, and it's one area Rhule has some confidence in, especially defensive ends Praise Martin-Oguike and Sharif Finch. "I don't know who are starting corners are until the game starts," Rhule said. "I don't know who will play when the lights are one and who goes and competes and who doesn't."

Scouting the special teams: This is an area of concern, since long snapper John Christopher went down on Monday with a foot injury and is questionable for Thursday. Rhule said he would go with true freshman Corey Lerch to handle the long snapping. Placekicking is still a toss-up, between red-shirt junior Tyler Mayes and true freshman Austin Jones. Temple made only three of nine field goal attempts in 2013.

DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):

--LB Tyler Matakevich -- It's time for the three-year starter to add a new dimension to his game. Matakevich has shown he can get to the ball, but can he become a playmaker on defense?

ROSTER REPORT:

--Starting LB Nate Smith appears recovered from a nagging back injury and is expected to start against Vanderbilt.

--Starting WR John Christopher is questionable against the Commodores with a foot injury, opening up the possibility for sophomore Khalif Herbin to step in at wide receiver and freshman Corey Lerch as the Owls' ling snapper.

--RB Zaire Williams will not play against Vanderbilt, because he's "banged up" as Rhule put it.

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