Stephaun Marshall stood on the Temple five-yard line, eyeing the ball as it bounced toward him.
The redshirt-junior linebacker picked up the football after it was blocked on the University of Massachusetts’ extra point attempt. Marshall ran with the ball until he reached the 10-yard line, where UMass senior defensive back Kelton Brackett began tackling him.
Before Marshall was brought down, he lateraled the ball to senior defensive back Will Hayes, who ran more than 80 yards with the ball for a two-point conversion to bring the Owls within one point of the Minutemen, 23-22.
“That was the biggest play of the game,” senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich said. “If you look at the game, blocking that kick, if they kick that ball, we are down four. We had to score. That proves to you how key of a play that was.”
After the offense turned the ball over three times, and the defense allowed 438 yards, the Owls’ special teams unit made key plays to help the team win its third game.
On Temple’s game-winning drive after Hayes’ PAT return, sophomore kicker Austin Jones kicked a 32-yard field goal with 12 seconds remaining to secure the team’s 25-23 win.
“I’m really proud of our special teams,” coach Matt Rhule said. “That is two weeks in a row that they made some big plays for us.”
Through three games, Jones is 7-for-7 on field goals, including two kicks of 40-or-more yards. Last season, Jones was 13-for-22 with two made field goals from more than 40 yards out.
As a freshman last season, Jones ranked No. 102 out of 114 Football Bowl Subdivision kickers in field goal percentage.
“The offseason helped a lot,” Jones said. “I got a lot better as a kicker. I matured a lot and coach Rhule told me to step my game up and I did.”
Jones, who Marshall calls “surefoot,” credits his success to redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Tom Bradway, who is his holder on field goals this season.
Former quarterback Connor Reilly was Jones’ holder last season because Bradway, who transferred from Lafayette College before the season, was forced to redshirt due to NCAA rules.
“He’s improved my game a lot,” Jones said. “The biggest thing is Connor is 6-foot-2 with big hands for a quarterback. Tom is about 5-foot-7 with small hands, so the weight of his hands helps a lot.”
The other sophomore specialist who played a role in Saturday’s victory was punter Alex Starzyk, who totaled seven punts inside the 25-yard line. On the season, Starzyk is averaging 41.62 yard per punt this season, including four punts of 50 yards or more.
Last season, Starzyk had seven 50-yard-plus punts and averaged 38.41 yards per punt, which ranked No. 99 out of 108 FBS punters.
“Kicking is something people don’t expect us to be good at,” Matakevich said. “But Austin’s doing a tremendous job. Alex Starzyk is doing a tremendous job punting the ball. Special teams are really helping us.”
Ed Foley took over as the special teams coach prior to this season, replacing former coach Tyree Foreman. Hayes said the results have manifested on the field due to a new emphasis.
“Special teams is a big part of the game,” Hayes said. “Offense and defense are only two-thirds of the game. You still got special teams, so we take that very seriously in practice every day.”
The work the Owls’ special teams unit put in this summer and continues to put in this season has not gone unnoticed by teammates.
“I think they’re the hardest working group on this team,” Walker said. “You know you got a lot of guys who’s giving it their all just to play special teams. You respect those guys because that’s a dangerous part of the game and that’s an important part of the game.”
Michael Guise can be reached at email@example.com, 215.204.9537 or on Twitter @Michael_Guise.