So Temple is 2-1 heading into next Thursday’s American Athletic Conference opener at No. 22 USF.
Record-wise, the Owls are right where you thought they’d be, right? Lose at Notre Dame, beat Villanova and beat UMass.
How they got here is a bit of a different matter, though.
After consecutive bowl seasons and a conference championship, Temple was routed in South Bend at the hands of a program it nearly beat two years ago. Sure, the names and personnel have changed a bit, but it was the team’s most lopsided loss in nine years.
Last Saturday, a 3-point win over Villanova was way too close for comfort. The running game completely misfired, and a late-game drive and Aaron Boumerhi’s right foot saved the day.
Then there was Friday night’s 29-21 win over UMass, an 0-3 program that’s now 0-4 but didn’t go away in a game the Owls would have preferred to be a blowout. The first quarter was very forgettable, the fourth quarter found the Minutemen still clinging to a one-possession game, and there were certainly peaks and valleys in between.
First-year head coach Geoff Collins has generally tried to keep things upbeat and positive so far as he begins his tenure on North Broad Street. He joked that the podium at the postgame press conference made him look short and asked that they get him something more height-friendly.
He doesn’t talk about injuries (there’s no update yet on injured left guard Jovahn Fair, who left Friday night’s game with an apparent foot or ankle injury), he did talk about his team’s ability to be resilient and close things out in the fourth quarter, and he said he knew there would be questions about true freshman quarterback Todd Centeio, who made his debut Friday in two series and completed both of his pass attempts.
“A win is a win,” Collins said as he began his opening statement to the media Friday night, leaning on one of the most tried and true sports clichés.
But it’s true, and Collins gets it. He surely knows his team won’t have as much time to get things right and will likely lose by a couple of touchdowns at USF (which is now 3-0 after blowing out Illinois, 47-23, Friday night) if they come out of the gate the way they did against UMass in the Owls’ home opener.
At times, they’re not physical enough. The Owls – whether it’s due to scheme, execution or both – haven’t been able to consistently control the line of scrimmage. Averaging 2.9 yards per carry against an FCS opponent like Villanova isn’t a good look, and Temple ran in fits and starts against a UMass team that was giving up 210 yards a game and 4.8 yards per carry.
Ryquell Armstead’s first run of the night went for two yards. His second went for 56. By the end of the first quarter, he had seven carries for 56 yards. He finished with 91 on 17 carries, and the team as a whole got 119, 91 short of what the Minutemen had been allowing on the ground.
On the other side of the ball, there’s defensive talent. Lots of it.
In a developmental program like Temple’s, redshirt freshman defensive end Quincy Roche looks like the latest diamond in the rough. A largely unheralded recruit out of Maryland, Roche’s other scholarship offers came from Appalachian State, Monmouth and Toledo. The Owls staff offered Roche after a strong performance at one of former coach Matt Rhule’s camp, back when he was about 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds.
Friday night, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound catalyst seemed to be in on just about every play at the line that mattered. Temple had nine sacks, and Roche had three of them en route to collecting eight tackles and four tackles for a loss. On one of his sacks, he drilled UMass quarterback Andrew Ford, forced a fumble and then recovered the ball after it bounded back to him.
That play set up a touchdown pass three plays later from Logan Marchi to Keith Kirkwood, an 11-yard connection that helped lift Temple to a 16-7 lead at halftime. Senior Austin Jones shanked the extra point.
Collins still seems intent on using two kickers, by the way. Jones connected on field goals of 24 and 37 yards. Sophomore Aaron Boumerhi had a 43-yard attempt blocked but drilled a career-high 52-yarder that gave Temple a 19-7 lead with a little more than 10 minutes to go in the third quarter.
Getting back to Roche, he was the most dominant defensive player on a night when fellow redshirt freshman Sam Franklin and senior Sharif Finch got two sacks apiece and redshirt freshman linebacker Isaiah Graham-Mobley and senior defensive end Jacob Martin also got in on the fun.
Safety Delvon Randall told reporters that Roche said earlier in the week that he felt UMass wouldn’t be able to block him. Turns out he was right, and he said he got help and advice from his older teammates.
“It’s facing little things, like keeping your pad level down,” Roche said. “Sharif, Jake (Jacob Martin) and Freddie (Booth-Lloyd) helped me a lot. Just the little things.”
But those things meant a lot when Temple, once again, started slow on offense. And for the second week in a row, the Owls started slow against a team where that shouldn’t be happening. Three points in the game’s first 28 minutes pointed to a team that still seems to be looking for an offensive identity. Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude called some stuff out of the I-formation early before the Owls tried stuff out of the option that didn’t work well at first.
Then Temple got two touchdowns just before halftime to grab that 16-7 lead after falling behind by 7-3. Before Marchi hit Kirkwood on the 10-yard touchdown after Roche’s strip sack, he found Adonis Jennings on a 30-yard strike.
Temple’s second and third series produced nothing. Then, on the fourth series at the outset of the second quarter, Centeio trotted out under center and lit a spark that had been missing since the opening drive. He rolled out of the pocket and connected with Randle Jones and Marshall Ellick on completions of 11 and nine yards, respectively.
But after the throw to Ellick, Patenaude elected to bring Marchi back into the game, and Armstead lost two yards on third-and-3. That’s when Boumerhi’s 43-yard field goal was blocked, and the air went out of the balloon for a while.
“Once he got into the red zone, we had kind of exhausted what the package was for this week,” Collins said. “It will expand in the future, but it was time to go to other things just to keep field position.”
In a session with reporters that lasted more than 10 minutes, Patenaude was candid and realistic about where his offense stands heading into the most important game of the season. He liked what he saw from Centeio and said “he’ll have a role moving forward.”
But when asked if he could see Centeio starting a game this season, he said, “No, I don’t think so. He’s really far along for a freshman. That scenario would probably be that a couple of guys got banged up. We played with six guys last year at Coastal Carolina (where Patenaude was the offensive coordinator.) Could it happen? Absolutely. And I would have no problem putting Frank Nutile in the game if he had to go in and play, and I’d have no problem playing with Todd Centeio.”
As for his starter, Marchi, Patenaude said he was “a little uneven early on, but he settled in and did a good job.”
That’s true. Through the first quarter, the redshirt sophomore was 2 of 5 passing for 23 yards and took a sack. His touchdown throws to Jennings and Kirkwood in the second quarter were on point. His third touchdown pass of the night, a 13-yard toss to Isaiah Wright with 3:48 to go, was a great throw. Marchi put it where only Wright could get it, and Wright brought it in with one hand.
Marchi finished 22 of 37 for 248 yards and the three scores. Through three games, he’s completed 57.5 percent of his passes for 767 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. Staring at the position that was the biggest question mark heading into the season (and no one outside the program really had a great handle on who was going to start, anyway), anyone on the staff probably would have taken those numbers after three games.
And Patenaude is well aware of what he has in Marchi and knows he’s still very much a work in progress.
“When he gets into a flow … it’s funny with him,” Patenaude began. “He’ll do the same thing in practice. He’ll miss five throws in a row, and then he’ll come out and throw a ridiculous back-shoulder ball 30 yards down the field. So that’s kind of the guy he is right now. It’s a maturation process for him. We can’t forget the kid’s only started three games.”
That could be said of quite a few important players on the Temple roster, including a group of young linebackers who will very much have their hands full against USF quarterback Quinton Flowers, who threw for 280 yards and four touchdowns while also rushing for 106 yards and another score in beating Illinois.
For now, the Bulls are the benchmark in the American. Temple, as the defending conference champion, is trying to catch up. Whether they will or not remains to be seen, but we’ll certainly know a lot more by this time next week.