Joquez Smith takes command of rushing attack against Norfolk State

The freshman running back stole the show in a statement win, prompting head coach Stan Drayton to change the lineup going forward.

Temple running back Joquez Smith races a defender to the corner of the end zone. His big day against Norfolk State Saturday earned him the spot as the starting running back. | NOEL CHACKO / THE TEMPLE NEWS

After Temple’s 36-7 loss to Rutgers on Sept. 9, head coach Stan Drayton knew something had to change with their run game. The Owls ran for only 68 yards against the Scarlet Knights, totaling just 129 all season and ranking 121st out of 130 FBS teams in rushing yards per game.

A week later, true freshman running back Joquez Smith seemed to be the spark the rushing attack needed. Now, he’ll be starting each game moving forward.

Smith made his first start at running back Saturday and carved up Norfolk State’s defense in Temple’s 41-9 rout. He finished with 142 yards rushing overall, which is more than the Owls had managed as a team in the first two games of the season. Smith is the first freshman running back to gain more than 100 yards since Re’Mahn Davis had 105 in Temple’s 49-17 win against UConn on Nov. 30, 2019.

“[I’m] just trusting the process and trusting my reads,” Smith said. “Letting everything go slow, picking up linebackers, seeing where they going, just taking it slow.”

Temple has had issues running the ball throughout the past few seasons, as its last game with more than 100 rushing yards was a win against USF on Nov. 5, 2022. Despite their combined experience, running backs Edward Saydee and Darvon Hubbard haven’t been able to produce on the field this season.

“We need those guys to be physical runners,” Drayton said. “We know that they’ve shown us that, but we need that to show up now. That’s a challenge for those guys is to make sure they know who they are, play within who they are physically and bring that to the table all the time.”

Rather than waiting for Saydee and Hubbard to step up their play, Drayton turned to Smith in last week’s blowout loss to Rutgers. Smith’s performance was the sole bright spot of the defeat, finishing with nine carriers for 45 of Temple’s 68 rushing yards.

Smith, who wasn’t listed on the week one depth chart, was expected to, at most, provide depth for the Owls behind Saydee, Hubbard and E.J. Wilson. However, while the run game continued struggling this season, Smith took his chance to show he could be the number-one option and ran with it.

After the team got a taste of his ability against Rutgers, Smith was given the majority of the running duties against Norfolk State and proved he could be the lead running back with the Owls’ win.

He wasted no time this past weekend, getting his number called on the first three plays of the opening drive and catching his first-ever touchdown, a 15-yard reception to cap off the drive. 

Smith scored his first two touchdowns against Norfolk State, solidifying his new role in the offense. | NOEL CHACKO / THE TEMPLE NEWS

In the second quarter, Smith had his longest rush of the game and his early career so far, putting the Owls up 21-7. On 1st-and-10 from the Temple 49-yard line, Smith took a handoff from Warner up the middle and used a burst of speed to beat the Norfolk State defense for a 51-yard touchdown. 

The offensive line also contributed to Smith’s performance with a bounce-back game. They played the same starters in consecutive games for the second time in two years and provided holes in the line for Smith to cause damage throughout the game.

“It’s about execution and getting our guys,” said offensive lineman and single-digit Victor Stoffel. “If we just block the right guys, it doesn’t have to be pretty”

The emergence of the rushing attack ignited an offense considered one-dimensional at times due to its lack of ability to run the ball. Smith’s performance also lifted the pressure off quarterback E.J. Warner, who had thrown 96 passes in the first two weeks of the season.

“It’s huge,” Warner said about Smith’s impact on the offense. “He brings another skill set in the backfield. He has been huge the last few weeks, and I’m excited to see his growth.”

The coaching staff and his teammates have watched Smith’s work throughout the season, seeing Smith as a good starting option.

Saturday’s performance all but sealed the deal on who would be getting the majority of the carries as the season progresses. Despite the change to the lineup, Drayton is confident in his decision to increase Smith’s role. 

“Good start to a new beginning for us, for that running back,” Drayton said. “We have to support his play. He’s gonna be our guy moving forward.”

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