P.J. Walker dropped back after faking a quarterback sneak on third-and-1.
The defense was fooled by the fake, with nine defenders rushing to the line of scrimmage, leaving two defensive backs to chase Jalen Fitzpatrick down the field. Walker lofted the ball past the defenders and into Fitzpatrick’s extended arms. The junior wideout fell into the end zone for Temple’s second score of the day, a 37-yard pass that put the Owls ahead in the first quarter of their 33-14 win.
“We’ve been practicing that play all week,” Walker, a freshman quarterback, said. “We called it just to ensure that we would make a big play. I wasn’t going to take anything less. Jalen went out there, beat the guy on the stutter and kept it running. I saw him out there open. I had to make a perfect throw, and Jalen made a great catch and the O-line did a great job protecting.”
“It kind of didn’t work as much as we wanted it to,” Fitzpatrick said. “But just enough.”
The Owls (1-6, 0-3 American Athletic Conference) never trailed in the 33-14 victory against Army (3-5) in the Homecoming game. It was coach Matt Rhule’s first victory as head coach.
“I think we really needed it,” junior running back Kenny Harper said. “It kind of lets everybody take a deep breath…We still got to keep pushing. We still got five games left, but it definitely was good to get the first one. That’s the biggest one, getting the first one, and then look for number two.”
Fitzpatrick’s touchdown, which capped a 10-play, 99-yard drive, was a successful execution of a long play, something Temple had struggled to do in the first half of the season. The Owls had four passing plays that went for 30 or more yards on Saturday, all of which came on drives that ended with a touchdown. Three of those long plays occurred during Temple’s first two drives, marking the first time the team scored on its first drive and the second time it scored on its second drive.
“When you face the option, you have to get up on offense,” coach Matt Rhule said. “I thought, for P.J.’s confidence, to go out and make the plays that he made.”
Walker went 5 for 7 with 128 yards and a touchdown on those first two drives, finishing the game 10 for 16 with 203 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He also added 28 rushing yards.
“I think the thing about P.J. is he has tremendous poise,” Rhule said. “Had we not been up so much, he probably would have continued to throw for the third and fourth quarter, and thrown for a lot more yards… The thing I love about this guy, though, is that he recognizes it. He doesn’t make excuses.”
Walker’s mobility and deep-ball accuracy have sparked the offense since he became the quarterback. Speedy receivers like Fitzpatrick and sophomore Robby Anderson have excelled with Walker under center. Fitzpatrick had his first 100-yard receiving game against Army, catching four passes for 128 yards. His catches of 45 and 37 yards are the two longest in his collegiate career.
“I think we are trying to stretch the field a little bit more with me and Robby,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s fun and it’s a little different for me … It’s helped P.J. getting comfortable in there, being the consistent starter now.”
“[Fitzpatrick] does a great job getting open,” Walker said. “With him getting open, I just have to put enough air under the ball for him to run under it, because of his speed, just as well as Robby Anderson and [sophomore John Christopher].”
As the passing game has stabilized, the rushing attack has continued its solid play. Harper and freshman Zaire Williams combined for 144 yards on the ground against Army, a total only surpassed by their 186 yards versus Fordham. Harper and Williams, who have 726 collective rushing yards this year, are also threats on passing plays, with 168 and 117 receiving yards respectively this season.
“It’s a good one-two punch,” Williams said. “We always talk during the game … If the defense is doing something, he’ll come over and let me know, or I’ll come over and let him know. We have a good relationship just talking to each other and making sure we got everything.”
“He’s a little younger than me,” Harper said of Williams. “So we always have a little competition between each other, so it balances out pretty well.”
Harper said the increased threat of long passes has helped the running game open up.
“If they see a deep-ball threat, then they don’t know what you’re going to do,” Harper said. “It leaves them more vulnerable to little plays happening.”
“What we’ve been trying to do is play action,” Rhule said. “As the running game gets better, we’re able to get P.J. outside the box because he can use his athleticism and tuck it when he can. We’re trying to respond, really since Idaho, to what people are doing against us.”
The Owls will be in Dallas this Saturday to take on Southern Methodist, a team that is No. 119, or fifth from the bottom, in the country in scoring defense. The Mustangs allow 40.8 points per game and have allowed at least 29 points in every game this season. Team members said they look to continue their momentum from the Army win.
“There were kids out there starting today that started the year on the scout team,” Rhule said. “Those kids have been through it and they weathered the storm, and they have come back and worked and worked and worked. That, to me, is how you build something. You build something with work ethic, and eventually that results in wins.”
“This was the time to get [a win] and we got it,” Walker said. “And I think from now on, things are going to keep moving in the right direction.”
Evan Cross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @EvanCross.