Freshman kicker Aaron Boumerhi’s kickoff went straight into the turf and began to bounce down the field.
“What’s he doing?” coach Matt Rhule screamed into his headset.
The ball then bounced past two Bearcats before Temple junior defensive back Cequan Jefferson recovered it, giving the Owls possession at Cincinnati’s 18-yard line.
“Great job,” an elated Rhule said.
The play was one of two special teams plays Temple (6-3, 4-1 American Athletic Conference) used in its 34-13 win against Cincinnati on Saturday. The win made the team bowl-eligible.
“If you don’t make a play on special teams or don’t change the game for like our defense or offense, it’s a problem,” Jefferson said. “We are big on special teams, so we make sure we get the job done for coach Rhule.”
Boumerhi began squibbing the kickoffs after Cincinnati junior running back Mike Boone returned one 60 yards in the first quarter. Rhule said although he would rather kick the ball deep, the fact that his team had been struggling with kick coverage made bouncing the kickoffs a good option to “mix it up.”
The Owls have struggled with kickoff and punt coverage all year. Rhule said the team was experiencing “growing pains” on special teams after its loss against Penn State.
The Owls allowed a 35-yard kickoff return and were flagged for an additional 15 yards on the opening kickoff. They allowed a 29-yard punt return later in the first quarter.
Temple’s special teams problems reappeared in the following weeks.
Memphis redshirt-freshman wide receiver Tony Pollard returned a kick 95 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Owls on Oct. 6. Redshirt-senior defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike’s running into the punter penalty extended a Memphis drive late in the loss.
The team nearly allowed another kickoff return for a touchdown Oct. 21 against South Florida. Just before the half, Bulls junior running back D’Ernest Johnson reached the Owls’ 32-yard line before freshman defensive back Linwood Crump made a touchdown-saving tackle.
Boumerhi’s kick on Saturday not only deterred a long Bearcats’ return, but it also set up sophomore running back Ryquell Armstead’s second touchdown of the day four plays later to cap off a streak of 17 straight points for the Owls.
Along with the kickoff recovery on Saturday, a blocked punt gave Temple good field position to help set up 10 of its points.
“That’s two momentous changes of field position, and also we stole a possession,” Rhule said. “When we play these offenses, we’re always trying to win time of possession and try to steal a possession, and if you can do that, you have a good chance of winning.”
The blocked punt came after Cincinnati’s game-opening drive. Redshirt-senior defensive lineman Avery Ellis blocked a punt for the second straight week. The play gave the Owls the ball in Bearcats’ territory and led to a Boumerhi field goal.
Ellis said he learned his technique from redshirt-senior defensive lineman Sharif Finch, who has five career blocked punts. Temple entered play Saturday tied for the most blocked kicks since 2013.
“I think any time you block a punt, you increase your percentage to win,” Ellis said. “So it’s always big to make a big play on special teams to put our offense in better field position.”
Despite allowing some long returns, the special teams unit has made game-changing plays throughout the year, starting with the season-opener against Army West Point. Finch blocked a punt in the second quarter that led to a field goal by junior kicker Austin Jones.
After a drive stalled in the fourth quarter of the Penn State game, junior punter Alex Starzyk’s rugby-style kick hit a Nittany Lions’ player in the back. The Owls recovered the ball at the 1-yard line and scored a touchdown three plays later. Rhule called Starzyk the “MVP” against Stony Brook University on Sept. 10 for pinning the Seawolves inside their own 3-yard line twice.
Temple is tied for first in the Football Bowl Subdivision with three blocked punts and ranked 27th in punt return defense.
“At first it was terrible, man,” said redshirt-senior linebacker Avery Williams. “They didn’t really understand that special teams is one of the major parts of the team. But I felt like [Saturday] they were on their A-game and they felt like, ‘If we go down there and we get the ball back for our offense, then we’re going to do our thing.’”
Evan Easterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.