While the offense struggled to find its groove and the field goal and extra point attempts continued to cause problems, the Owls’ defense held its ground Saturday in the team’s 22-13 loss against Houston.
Through three quarters, Temple allowed no touchdowns and just 15 points. The Owls gave up one touchdown in the fourth, but only after a late interception by redshirt-junior quarterback Connor Reilly gave the Cougars the ball in the red zone with little more than a minute left on the clock.
“The defense gave us a chance to win the football game,” coach Matt Rhule said.
That statement alone is perhaps more than could have been said about Temple last week at Notre Dame, where the defense put the team in an early 14-0 hole, one that the Owls were never able to dig themselves out of.
“I think we played excellent today,” sophomore linebacker Tyler Matakevich said. “The last drive, they got the better of us, but the whole game we played the best defense we played all year, and I definitely felt our defense came together.”
“Every time something happened or something changed, I felt they stepped up,” Matakevich added. “That was a big part of today.”
Against a squad that had the 15th best offense in the nation last season, the Owls limited Houston to only field goals for most of the game.
One of the biggest moments of Saturday’s match came early in the third quarter. After junior quarterback Connor Reilly fumbled the ball on an Efrem Oliphant sack, the Cougars’ offense would end up starting their drive on the Owls’ 8-yard-line. Three straight rushes would bring Houston to the Temple 1-yard-line on a 4th and goal opportunity.
Justin Hicks rushed up the middle and was stuffed short of the end zone by senior Abdul Smith and Matakevich. The crowd of 27,328 went wild.
“I think what’s happening is some guys on our team are just starting to ascend, and [Smith] is one of them,” Rhule said. “He has been one of the ones that has been paying attention to the details that I was talking about earlier. I think he will just get better and better as the year goes on.”
Smith’s day wasn’t done there. In the red zone again in the fourth quarter, Houston was threatening to pull away on a 3rd and goal at the six-yard-line. Smith barged into quarterback John O’Korn, knocking the ball loose as Temple’s Anthony Robey recovered.
“My responsibility on that was the quarterback, and I kind of lost that in the beginning,” Smith said. “I tried to help the receiver on that. He was isolated, and that’s where the quarterback was looking. I just came back and had a good hit and forced a fumble.”
Smith, a fifth-year athlete, didn’t know if he would return this season to college football. The decision, he said, was based on Rhule’s hiring as head coach.
“I’ve known him for six years from recruiting,” Smith said. “When I first transferred over from Rutgers, I wasn’t initially on scholarship and when coach Al Golden left, I didn’t know what was going to happen. But he’s the same guy that made sure I was put on scholarship. I believe in that guy like a father.”
Houston coach Tony Levine recognized his team’s inability to score in the red zone, and credited the play of Temple’s defense as one of the reasons behind it.
“Phil Snow, Temple’s defensive coordinator, he’s been doing this a long time,” Levine said. “He’s an outstanding football coach. I give him and his staff credit. When we get down there, we have to put the ball in the end zone. We gave them some different looks, they adjusted.”
Compared with the Notre Dame matchup the week prior, sophomore defensive back Tavon Young saw a difference in the team’s second game in limiting the damage done by the opposing offense.
“Last week we gave up too many big plays,” Young said. “And when we came to practice this week, we were focusing on the details and making sure you play your technique to not give up big plays, because that’s what makes you lose games.”
The defense wasn’t perfect, giving up 32 first downs, 219 yards rushing and 305 yards passing.
That said, when Houston threatened to score, the defensive unit came through. Going forward to next week’s match against Fordham, that gives this Owls team something to build on.
“I thought when push came to shove they stood up,” Rhule said. “That’s when you know you have some heart in your team.”
Avery Maehrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AveryMaehrer.