It took Jalen Fitzpatrick less than a half of football to become Temple’s leading receiver on Friday night.
The senior receiver, who suffered a leg injury just before the end of the first half, amassed five catches for 64 yards in the first half of the Owls’ last-minute 16-13 loss to Memphis.
After Fitzpatrick’s departure, Walker’s second half numbers suffered, going six for 19, featuring many drops from the remaining wide receivers.
For coach Matt Rhule, the close game could have been decided by one more crucial catch.
“We just needed one more play,” Rhule said. “We just need to come up with a couple of those plays if not all of them. If we do that, we probably win the football game.”
The receiving core, which lost 2013 standout Robbie Anderson after academic troubles led to his expulsion from the university, has been an operative part of a lackluster season through the air for the Owls.
Walker, who played in nine games last season, has seen a considerable drop in statistics across the board, despite seeing a slight increase in attempts over the same number of games.
Walker’s 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season are a drop from his 20-to-8 ratio this year, adding to his dropping completion percentage, which is down six percent from last year.
In addition, Walker’s yards also dropped by 400, lowering his yards per attempt from 8.3 to 6.2.
The offensive troubles have led to a NCAA Division I worst 26 percent third down conversion percentage.
Despite the young class of receivers, Walker recognizes his responsibility in improving the passing game.
“It’s frustrating but the plays are there, we’ve just got to execute them” Walker said. “There’s nothing that the coaches are doing wrong, they’re calling the right plays in the right situations, we just have to execute them and be a lot more smart and focused on third down.”
“Most of it is on me, the ball is in my hands and I have to make the right play,” Walker added. “The ball is in my hands and I’ve got to go make the play, I’ve got to make the right read. I felt like I did a decent job today but it still wasn’t good enough.”
Passing struggles aside, Walker had success moving in the pocket and gaining yards on the ground, compiling 28 yards, including a 33-yard run early in the first quarter.
“I was just running around,” Walker said. “When the opportunity came I made a play with my feet, I’m just trying to find lanes. … I just ran out there and ran around a little bit and got a few first downs.”
Driving the offense during the passing troubles was senior running back Kenny Harper, who tallied a career-high 116 yards on the ground.
The senior back, who has been battling a high-left ankle sprain, saw a total of three carries in the Owls’ previous two losses against Houston and Central Florida.
Harper, who said he felt much healthier heading into the team’s game against the Tigers, received a season-high 17 carries in the loss.
“I’ve kind of gotten used to the pain [of the injury],” Harper said. “I’m a senior so I’ve only got a couple of games left so my mentality is, ‘Whatever it takes, go all the way over to the wall.’ At the end of the day, I don’t have these days left. … When it’s all said and done, what am I going to say? ‘Oh, I didn’t play because of a high ankle sprain?’”
The Owls will shift their focus to in-state rival Penn State while in pursuit of bowl eligibility next Saturday.
Despite “Beat Penn State” cheers from Temple fans after the Owls’ loss, players said it’s just another game.
“We just have to play our game,” Harper said on his last matchup against the Nittany Lions. “It’s Penn State. … It’s just another team. We were worried about the conference. We don’t worry about Penn State.”
Ej Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @ejsmitty17