It was simple. Temple needed to win Saturday’s game at Lincoln Financial Field to clinch the American Athletic Conference’s East Division and reach the conference championship game for back-to-back years.
East Carolina entered the game on a three-game losing streak and with only one conference win, but also with one of the best passing offenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Pirates’ 348.5 passing yards per game ranked fifth and senior wide receiver Zay Jones’ 13.7 catches per game led all players in the FBS.
The Pirates’ offense drove down the field on its first possession Saturday, converting all three third down opportunities. Jones caught a 13-yard pass to set up a 13-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Jimmy Williams with nine minutes, 52 seconds left.
It was the first score allowed by the Owls’ defense since the second quarter against Cincinnati on Oct. 29, breaking a 10-quarter shutout streak.
“We didn’t play very good in the first quarter,” defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. “We didn’t have a lot of energy and so the guys started to play better as the game went. It’s just some days you come out a little slow and they did [Saturday].”
After the touchdown, Temple’s defense held East Carolina scoreless for more than 42 minutes and only allowed two total yards in the second quarter in Saturday’s 37-10 win.
The Pirates only had 183 passing yards and Jones, who had a school-record 22 catches against the University of South Carolina in September, only had seven catches for 61 yards. He broke the single-season receptions record Saturday, but was held to less than 10 catches for only the second time this year.
Redshirt-senior linebacker Avery Williams said redshirt-senior defensive back Nate Hairston shut Jones down every time they lined up man-to-man. Last season, Hairston moved from wide receiver to cornerback with defensive backs coach Francis Brown’s guidance. He won the team’s most improved defensive player award in April for his work during the spring training camp.
Redshirt-sophomore defensive back Derrek Thomas also made the switch from wide receiver to cornerback and junior defensive back Sean Chandler moved from cornerback to safety.
Temple’s defense lost seven of its 11 starters from last season, including NFL draft picks Tyler Matakevich, Tavon Young and Matt Ioannidis. Some of the inexperience showed early in the season. In its four games from Sept. 24 to Oct. 15, the team allowed 13 plays of 20 yards or more.
“I thought by game seven or eight we would be better than we were a year ago and I told the players that all year and we are better statistically,” Snow said. “We just got off to a slow start and we had some guys in critical spots that hadn’t played much and we kept getting better and better so here we are.”
Temple’s defense has played some tough offenses in its six-game winning streak. Led by juniors quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack, South Florida ranked in the Top 10 in scoring and rushing leading up to its matchup with Temple. The Owls held Tulane’s Top 20 rushing offense scoreless to get the fifth win in the streak.
Central Florida was averaging more than 35 points per game in the week leading up to its contest with Temple on Oct. 15. The Owls’ defense held the Knights scoreless for the final 42:34 to earn a one-point comeback victory on a last second touchdown and start the streak.
“After the Central Florida game we met as seniors and as a team,” Hairston said. “These seniors and these coaches, we decided we were going to put the team on our back and we were going to carry the rest of the team, and the leadership that stepped up since then has been tremendous.”
The defense’s next test is Navy, the No. 20 team in the Associated Press Top 25. Navy is on a four-game winning streak, most recently beating Southern Methodist 75-31 on Saturday. The Midshipmen’s only conference loss came to South Florida, which finished second in the East Division and is ranked No. 24 in the AP poll.
The last time Temple played Navy was in 2014, when the Owls lost 31-24 at Lincoln Financial Field. The Midshipmen’s option offense rushed for 487 yards and four touchdowns.
The option has given Temple trouble in the past. Army West Point ran for 329 yards in the Owls’ season-opening loss. Temple showed improvement against Tulane’s option, only allowing 142 yards of offense in a shutout victory on Nov. 19.
Temple’s 17.8 points allowed per game is tied for 10th in Division I. The Owls are second in passing yards allowed and third in total defense. Coach Matt Rhule didn’t want to disrespect any of his former players that were on the sideline to watch Saturday’s game, like Matakevich, by calling this year’s defense the best he’s ever coached, but said it’s a talented group.
“For what they were able to do against the run and the pass, they’ve played really really well,” he said. “We’ll find out how special they probably are next week.”
Redshirt-senior defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike was a freshman in 2011 when the team won nine games including a bowl game. After being expelled from the school and dismissed from the team because of a 2012 rape charge for which he was later cleared, he watched from afar as Temple went 6-17 in its next two seasons. He’s excited to return to the conference championship for back-to-back years.
“I love how far we’ve come as a university,” Martin-Oguike said. “Temple has really like risen from the dead, you could say. … It’s just amazing to watch like a school that was a laughingstock, especially in football, like we’re a basketball school, and now it’s just everybody’s talking about football. And even this season we didn’t start off too well, but we just kept growing and it’s just good to see how everything is coming together for the school.”
Evan Easterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.