The football team’s defense has a motto before every third down play: Get off the field, get off the field.
Against Northern Illinois Saturday, that motto was nearly perfect as the Owls beat the Huskies, 16-15, on Homecoming. The Owls improved to 1-5 overall and 1-2 in the Mid-American Conference. The Huskies converted only three of 13 third-down plays as the Owls forced nine third downs of eight-plus yards.
“We’re winning on third down more than we’re losing,” coach Al Golden said.
“In practice, [defensive line coach Jared Backus], is always saying, ‘Third down, third down,'” defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “The D-line, we always echo, ‘Get off the field, get off the field.’ Every time before third down, we’re saying ‘Let’s get off the field, let’s get off the field.'”
The biggest third down came late in the fourth quarter. With 5:53 remaining, John Haley sacked backup quarterback Ryan Morris on third-and-12 to force the Huskies to punt following three plays worth -6 yards.
“The character of our defense is relentless,” said defensive back Dominique Harris, who led the Owls with 10 tackles. “Our coach preaches to us, ‘Finish every play every day.’ The defense played real well. People were focused. They did their jobs.”
“The defense kept us in it,” quarterback Adam DiMichele said.
Actually, the defense has given the Owls a chance throughout the last several games.
“It’s been quietly good over three weeks,” Golden said.
In a 37-21 loss to Army, the special teams unit allowed two touchdowns and the offense lost a fumble in the end zone for another score. The week before, the offense fumbled twice for touchdown returns in a 48-35 loss to Bowling Green.
All of these scores counted against a defensive unit that wasn’t technically on the field.
The Owls rank ninth in the 13-team MAC in scoring defense, allowing an average of 32.3 points per game. But Temple ranks second in total defense, limiting opponents to 377.8 yards per game. Last season, opponents racked up an average of 452.4 yards per game.
“We’re playing a lot better than we did last year,” Harris said. “I think we’re more focused. We’re a little older, more experienced.”
This week it was the Temple defense forcing the turnovers. In the second quarter, Knighton forced a fumble and returned it 66 yards for a touchdown to give the Owls a 7-6 lead.
“I wasn’t really tired,” Knighton said of his scamper. “Everyone jumping on me at the end got me tired.”
Along with his first career touchdown, Knighton won a friendly competition among his teammates.
“We’re always joking around the D-line saying, ‘Who’s going to get the first touchdown?'” Knighton said. “A lot of guys are getting on me today saying it was lucky.”
The Owls, who top the MAC in passing defense yielding 188.2 yards a game, shut down the Huskies’ passing game. Huskies starting quarterback Dan Nicholson was 12-of-25 for only 101 yards before leaving the game with an ankle injury. Morris, who replaced Nicholson, was 1-of-3 for 12 yards and was sacked twice.
“We were just trying to disguise and get him confused a little bit,” Harris said.
That meant the Huskies were going to run the ball more often.
Last season, the Owls held Northern Illinois running back Garrett Wolfe, the Division I-A leading rusher, to only 56 yards.
Running back Justin Anderson was more successful against the Owls Saturday. The red-shirt sophomore ran for 163 yards, but the stats are a bit deceiving. Anderson had a 39-yard touchdown run and a gain of 21 yards on two of his 29 carries which inflated his statistics.
“We stopped him for the majority of the game and it paid off,” Knighton said.
DiMichele, who wrote on his wristbands before the game “Be their leader,” came through on offense and led the game-winning drive.
The red-shirt junior rushed for 15 yards and completed 3-of-5 passes for 27 yards on the drive, leaving kicker Jake Brownell with a 39-yard field goal attempt with nine seconds left. Brownell booted the kick through the uprights and the Owls earned their first victory of the season.
“It was a great feeling to have support,” Harris said of the 21,065 in attendance. “It really helps the team’s demeanor and gives us an edge, a lot of emotion. Coach is really proud of us. Today we put together a good game.”
Golden wants his team to enjoy the win, but he also wants them to focus on building from this win and moving forward. The Owls have six games remaining, including five within the conference.
“We’ve competed. There’s a different look right now from the guys,” Golden said. “We can’t be a one-hit wonder.”
Pete Dorchak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.