The Owls entered last year’s matchup with Memphis at Lincoln Financial Field knowing they had to win to remain in control of their own destiny as they tried to reach the American Athletic Conference championship game.
Temple did not start in the right direction, turning the ball over on its first two drives. But Temple outscored Memphis 17-0 in the fourth quarter, and the Owls’ defense held the sixth-ranked offense in the Football Bowl Subdivision from scoring a touchdown for the first time in more than a year in the Owls’ 31-12 win on Nov. 21, 2015.
Temple (3-2, 1-0 The American) will travel to Tennessee to play the Tigers (3-1) on Thursday night.
“The game wasn’t won in the first quarter,” said senior quarterback Phillip Walker, who threw for 261 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s game. “It wasn’t won in the second quarter, it wasn’t won in the third quarter, it was won in the fourth quarter. We just got to go out there and play our game and let nothing discourage us.”
The Owls’ defense will try to limit the Tigers’ scoring again this year. Despite hiring a new coach in December and losing quarterback Paxton Lynch, who played for the undefeated Denver Broncos on Sunday, Memphis’ offense is still among the best in the FBS.
The Tigers’ 45.8 points per game ranks No. 6 and their 308.5 passing yards per game ranks No. 20 among FBS teams. Memphis is averaging 51.7 points in its wins, including 77 against Bowling Green State University on Sept. 24.
“We obviously respect Memphis’ offense,” redshirt-freshman linebacker Chapelle Russell said. “That’s why we know how much we’ve got to prepare. We don’t want somebody to put 77 points up on us, so we’re just going to come in grind, grind day by day and hopefully we can turn that 77 to a lot fewer points and hopefully come out with the W.”
Memphis is coming off its first loss of the season, a 48-28 defeat against the University of Mississippi, then-ranked No. 16 in the Associated Press Top 25. The Tigers were within one score at 27-21, but allowed two straight touchdowns to Mississippi. Memphis junior quarterback Riley Ferguson threw for 343 yards, but he also had a fumble and three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
Ferguson, a transfer from Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, was ranked as the ninth-best transfer by ESPN in January. His completion percentage ranks No. 17 and his passing efficiency ranks No. 22 in the FBS. Memphis hadn’t turned the ball over in its previous two games before Saturday, boasting a plus-10 turnover margin in that span.
The Owls’ defense, tied for the seventh-most fumble recoveries and tied at No. 23 in turnover margin, is looking to get takeaways on Thursday. Pressure from the defensive line contributed to two interceptions and a fumble on Saturday, but it might be more difficult for the Owls’ to get a consistent pass rush against Memphis’ uptempo offense.
“They like to get the ball out fast,” said redshirt-senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick, who earned The American’s Defensive Player of the Week award. “But we’re going to take the same approach last week that we did for SMU, which was stop the run and put them in a position where they have to pass the ball, where they have to slow down their tempo and really focus on more dropback stuff or passing the ball more.”
The Tigers’ offense features several weapons. Memphis has six players with rushing touchdowns and three players with 100 or more receiving yards. Redshirt-junior wide receiver Anthony Miller is the team’s leading receiver with 405 yards through four games. He had his fifth-career game with 100 or more receiving yards Saturday against Mississippi. Junior wide receiver Phil Mayhue has 20 straight games with a reception.
The Owls will be without several defensive players in the contest. Junior defensive back Sean Chandler, who missed Saturday’s game against Southern Methodist with an injury, is out indefinitely, coach Matt Rhule said. Redshirt-freshman defensive back Kareem Ali, who injured his arm against Stony Brook University, will remain out of the lineup. Redshirt-senior linebacker Stephaun Marshall is “probably out for this week,” Rhule said.
Rhule added that senior defensive lineman Sharif Finch and redshirt-junior defensive lineman Jullian Taylor are both out for the year. Finch, who hasn’t played since the Owls’ win against the University of North Carolina at Charlotte on Sept. 24, blocked a punt in the season-opener against Army West Point. Taylor hasn’t played since the team’s loss to Penn State.
Temple outscores its opponents 114-49 in the first half, and has outscored opponents 131-40 in its three wins. The wide margins of victory have allowed the second and third-string players who will have to step into the starting lineup to gain experience.
“At the beginning of every year, before the first game, a lot of kids get sent to the scout team and they’re upset,” Rhule said. “I have this meeting where I say, ‘Just so you guys know, a lot of you guys that are being sent to the scout team this week will start for us by game seven.’…There’s guys that are going to start this week that were on the scout team two weeks ago. That’s just the way it is.”
Evan Easterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.