Geoff Collins is generally a pretty upbeat guy.
Temple’s first-year head coach said recently that his first job is to love his players and support them, so perhaps it’s no surprise he took a glass-half-full approach when it came time to dissecting the Owls’ 20-13 loss to Houston Saturday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field.
“That team that played in the Cherry and White, right two doors down … that’s a good football team,” Collins said. “They fought, they stayed together. That team that played in the second half is really, really, really good.”
Sure, they fought. They stayed together. And Temple was a heck of a lot better in the second half than it was in the first.
But here’s the thing, and Collins knows it. One good second half doesn’t always erase a dreadful first half.
And with all due respect to a rookie head coach who has every right to be as positive as he wants in building the program the way he wants it, Temple is not a good football team right now.
The Owls are 2-3 overall after five games and 0-2 in the American Athletic Conference. The numbers are what they are.
And five games in, having sent first-, second- and fifth-round draft picks into the NFL from a team that won a conference championship last year, it’s not all that surprising to see Temple sitting at 2-3 with a new head coach and a mostly-new staff. They certainly also miss their four-year starter at quarterback, who’s occupying a spot on an NFL practice squad.
But as the players like to say, last year was last year.
This year, on the other hand, is a lot of things.
-- It’s a team that’s still trying to find an identity, especially on offense.
-- It’s a group of young linebackers that appears to be getting better by the week.
-- It’s a safety – and not the one who necessarily got all the preseason accolades – who’s playing at a very high level.
But it’s also been filled with countless self-inflicted wounds, turnovers, questionable play-calling and minute details that are either the result of coaching, execution or both. And the team has to shake it all off pretty fast if it wants to attack a stretch of three upcoming games – at East Carolina, at home against UConn and back on the road at Army – that appear to be winnable.
As for the mood in the locker room, junior safety Delvon Randall simply said, “It’s quiet.” He’s the safety playing at a very high level. He tallied five tackles and made a diving interception Saturday. He’s playing as well as anyone at his position in the conference.
But his quarterback, Logan Marchi, turned it over five plays after Randall’s interception when he tossed one of his three picks on the day.
Marchi, who earned the right to replace Phillip Walker under center, has been a lightning rod for criticism, even as the team went 2-1 in its first three games. Then last week happened, when the whole team flattened out in a 43-7 loss at South Florida that saw Marchi throw three interceptions and get benched more than once in favor of backup Frank Nutile.
Saturday afternoon, Temple won the toss. Looking to make an opening statement, the Owls elected to receive, and Marchi and the offense got a gift, starting at midfield after the kickoff went out of bounds and after Houston’s Mark Terry committed a personal foul penalty. And once Marchi hit Isaiah Wright for a 17-yard completion, Temple was well-positioned at first-and-goal at the Houston 7.
Four plays later, Temple was punting - on fourth-and-goal from the Houston 36 - because Marchi inexplicably took a 24-yard sack and was flagged for intentional grounding on the previous play.
What, exactly, was he trying to do there?
“Initially, trying to make a play,” Marchi explained. “Just trying to make a play with my feet. Toward the end, I just tried to throw the ball away, but it’s not the best decision. You’re in field-goal range. Take the field goal, take the sack if you have to, and get the points.”
That’s not what happened, of course. Houston (3-1), which came into Saturday’s game with its own questions at quarterback, started former backup Kyle Postma, who completed 25 of his 36 throws for 226 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 81 yards on 15 carries. He led three first-half scoring drives.
Temple, meanwhile, led everyone to believe nothing had changed since last week. The Owls were held to minus-8 rushing yards, and they were outgained by 232 to 114 in total yardage, including 130 to 21 in the first quarter alone. And nine of the 10 penalties they committed, which accounted for a loss of 68 yards, came in the first half.
The second half brought some of the good that had Collins encouraged during his postgame press conference. After Postma’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Linell Bonner staked Houston to a 20-0 lead at the 11:34 mark of the third quarter, Aaron Boumerhi got Temple on the board with a 41-yard field goal less than three minutes later.
Seven seconds into the fourth quarter, Marchi capped an 11-play, 85-yard scoring drive with a 1-yard toss to backup tailback David Hood that helped close the gap to 20-10. And another Boumerhi field goal, a 29-yarder, made it 20-13 with 8:47 left to play.
But that’s where the second-half goodwill fell flat. A 12-play, 34-yard drive stalled out with 1:37 left to play when Marchi threw high and incomplete to Ryquell Armstead on fourth-and-10 from the Temple 42. On third-and-10 one play earlier, offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude called a running play to Hood that went for no gain.
“That was a play we had really good success with,” said Patenaude, who coached atop the field from the press box for the first time this season and said he plans to stay there for the rest of the season. “What I was trying to do was to get us to, like, a fourth-and-5. We had really good success with that play in the second half. … Knowing that we were going to go for it on fourth down, trying to get just half of it back to get yourself in a (fourth)-and-5 situation. If you throw it there and you come up empty, now you’re fourth-and-10.”
But Temple ended up in fourth-and-10 anyway because the run didn’t produce anything.
The Owls had one last chance, albeit a slim one, to tie the game when they got the ball back with 30 seconds left at their 9-yard line. Marchi hit wideout Adonis Jennings for 21 yards on first down, and Jennings smartly got out of bounds to set up Temple at its 30 with 25 seconds left. On second down, Marchi hit receiver Isaiah Wright over the middle of the field for what would have been first down yardage. But Wright, in an attempt to get out of bounds, ran to his right and wound up going backwards on a play that only produced four yards.
It may not have ultimately decided the game, but it was a mental error nonetheless in a season that has produced several for Temple. When a receiver catches the ball in the middle of the field when his team is out of timeouts like the Owls were, Wright should have gotten vertical, gone to the ground and handed the ball to an official after picking up the first down, knowing the clock would stop.
But Wright, an otherwise dynamic and promising playmaker who led Temple with five catches for 53 yards Saturday, did not.
“In that moment when I caught the ball, all I thought about was getting out of bounds,” Wright said. “I wasn’t aware that it was a first down and I could have just dropped and we could have just spiked (the ball). I just wasn’t aware of the moment.”
That sort of sums it up in a nutshell. The moment has often swallowed some younger players who will ultimately get better, but it’s also gotten to some veterans like Ventell Bryant, who could be playing better. Bryant, a 6-3, 200-pound redshirt junior who lost his No. 1 jersey prior to the start of the season and now wears No. 19, caught just two passes for 11 yards Saturday and has just 11 receptions for 120 yards and no touchdowns following a season in which he caught 54 passes for 895 yards and four scores.
And Keith Kirkwood, another veteran starter, caught just one ball for 15 yards Saturday.
But things also have to get better under center, where Marchi has thrown six interceptions over the last two weeks.
“You could always put it in a better spot,” Marchi said of his interceptions and ball placement. “The responsibility is on me for that. You’ve got to put a better ball on them. The one (intended for tight end) Kenny (Yeboah), I could put a better spot on that. You’ve just got to make better decisions.”
Just about everyone on the Temple roster can at this point. The season is still salvageable, and the possibility of getting to six wins and becoming bowl-eligible is still possible.
But so much has to be cleaned up all around before the Owls are actually a good football team.
EXTRA POINTS: Although he was the key player to watch heading into the game, Houston’s standout sophomore defensive tackle Ed Oliver wasn’t much of a factor Saturday, mainly due to a knee injury that knocked him out of the game in the first half. And when he did play, the 2016 Associated Press first-team All-American recorded just one tackle and was generally kept at bay by Temple redshirt freshman center Matt Hennessy and guards Brian Carter and Adrian Sullivan. … Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude acknowledged that David Hood and Travon Williams could get more time in the backfield now that Jager Gardner is out for the rest of the season, news that was first reported by WHIP’s Tom Hanslin. Patenaude called Williams, a 5-foot-8, 160-pound walk-on who got 11 yards on his only carry of the game, “a fast little dude.” … A source confirmed WHIP’s report that Austin Jones, still battling back from the torn ACL he suffered last season, is also out for the rest of the year and likely to seek a medical redshirt. If that happens, Jones, who converted 4 of 5 field goals this season, could look to play at another program next season as a graduate transfer. … William Kwenkeu, who replaced Shaun Bradley at middle linebacker, led Temple with eight total tackles. Bradley was ejected from the game late in the first quarter following a targeting penalty for a hit he put on Houston’s Linnell Bonner. … Sullivan started his second consecutive game at left guard in place of Jovahn Fair, who is still recovering from an undisclosed leg injury he suffered in Temple’s win over UMass back on Sept. 15. Temple also rotated Vincent Picozzi and Jaelin Robinson in at guard.