Earlier this season, defensive coordinator Phil Snow was pondering a question about his group of athletes: “What is our identity?”
After Saturday’s 33-14 win against Army, Snow still doesn’t have the answer.
“Unfortunately, some of our older kids haven’t helped us with our identity,” Snow said. “When you’re young, what is your identity? You do what you’re supposed to do. That’s been an issue with this group. We’re working through it and getting better.”
As the defense continues to adjust, however, Snow can take solace with the fact that his squad was a major contributing factor to Temple’s first victory since Nov. 17, 2012.
Through the Owls’ first six games — and losses — of the 2013 season, the defense failed to score or force a turnover.
Sophomore defensive end/linebacker Nate D. Smith would change that statistic after recovering a fumble by Army’s Kelvin White and running into the end zone to extend Temple’s lead to 26-0 during the second quarter. Smith was moved by coach Matt Rhule to linebacker and named a captain for Saturday’s game. Smith was suspended during the spring Cherry & White game for being late to practice.
“I had to go back out there and get that hunger back,” Smith said. “I kind of lost it, I admit that. After I came back from that, I just got back to where I used to be.”
“I think that shows you the development and the maturity that he is having,” Rhule said. “Before you can win, you have to have some discipline and you have to have some accountability. He’s buying in and it resulted in the kid making a play and running the ball back. He would not come out of the game. Even at the end of the game, he wanted to stay in the game. I’m proud of him.”
Going forward, Snow said the staff has yet to determine whether Smith will remain as linebacker.
“We told him if he didn’t play good at linebacker we’d put him at nose guard next week,” Snow said with a laugh.
Army entered Saturday’s match-up against the Owls after scoring 50 points against Eastern Michigan, as the Black Knights tallied 551 total yards. Snow put together a strategy that Temple executed, particularly in the first half when Army failed to score. The Black Knights were limited to 338 total yards.
Snow attributed the difference in Saturday’s game compared to the previous six in a simplification of the defensive strategy — last week at Cincinnati, the plan had more of a “variety.” The issue so far this season defensively, Snow said, has been execution.
Like Snow, Rhule said the defense is missing an identity. On Saturday, it got the job done.
“They kept going out there, wanting to play in the second half,” Rhule said. “Our old defenses, you didn’t really want to play them. People didn’t want to block Muhammad [Wilkerson]. I thought they kept going out there, and I knew they would make some plays. I thought if we were aggressive and had some tenacity that we would be OK. They did that, and they kept playing. It was fun to watch.”
Army junior quarterback Angel Santiago was injured during the first half, but had only thrown for four yards in two passing attempts during the first quarter, in which he played in its entirety. Junior running back Terry Baggett was one of the biggest threats to the defense, coming off of his performance last week when he collected 304 rushing yards against the Eagles, breaking the school record. In Saturday’s game, Baggett tallied 27 yards, ranking fifth on the Army roster.
Sophomore Tyler Matakevich led the Owls again in tackles with 13. Matakevich also deflected and then caught a pass from Army’s Kelvin White during the fourth quarter for his first interception of the season. Tavon Young also intercepted a White pass, his first of the season as well.
Next week, the Owls will travel to Dallas to face a 2-4 SMU team that is coming off a victory against Memphis. The defensive plan is set to change again.
“Like the complete opposite,” Snow said. “We’re having D-linemen sitting on the line, reading and getting over blocks. Next week we want them to get vertical, which has been a problem for us — we have not rushed the passer well all year. It’s hard to stop a Cincinnati or SMU if you’re not rushing the passer. So we’ve got to generate some pass rush next week if we’re going to play SMU tough.”
“It’s been a while since we got a win,” Smith said. “But you know what? It can’t stop here. We can’t get complacent. Take this win, enjoy how it feels now. And when Monday comes, we have to get right back to the drawing board.”
Avery Maehrer can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter@AveryMaehrer.