Owls’ defense holds high-powered offense in check

Junior receiver Mekale McKay leaps over freshman defensive back Sean Chandler for the Bearcats’ first touchdown of the game. Hua Zong | TTN
Junior receiver Mekale McKay leaps over freshman defensive back Sean Chandler for the Bearcats’ first touchdown of the game. Hua Zong | TTN

For a unit that, prior to last weekend, had just held the second-most prolific offense in the American Athletic Conference to 14 points, most of the on-paper facts didn’t matter.

To name a few of them, Temple’s defense held Cincinnati to 23 points less at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday than its previous season average of 37.3 points per contest. The Bearcats’ yardage – 255 in total – fell more than 200 yards short of their season average of 473.8 in a game entering Saturday’s contest. And sophomore quarterback Gunner Kiel, a former five-star Notre Dame commit, managed to pick up 174 yards through the air on 19-of-31 passing.

The defense helped Temple win the yardage battle, as the Owls outgained the Bearcats’ 255 yards with 267 of their own. Ultimately, though, the group left the field with the scoreboard flashing a losing result for the third consecutive time after a 14-6 defeat.

Temple has been the benefactor of 29 turnovers this fall, which has the team tied for sixth in Division I. While redshirt-junior Boye Aromire forced Cincinnati redshirt-junior Chris Moore to cough up possession at Cincinnati’s 18-yard line on a Bearcats kickoff return, which ended in a missed Austin Jones field-goal attempt, Temple’s defense was unable to force a fumble of its own in the contest.

Despite the aforementioned statistics and the one-possession difference in the scoreline, the lack of a defensive turnover left something to be desired for a defense defined by them.

“I think we all fly to the ball really well,” junior defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis said. “Despite not having any turnovers today, which was really disappointing as a defense, I think we’ve become a really turnover-oriented defense. Everyone shifts at the ball, and our defensive backs are driving people down trying to go for [interceptions], and I think that really says something about our identity as a defense.

“Turnovers are a part of our standards,” redshirt-sophomore linebacker Avery Williams said. “You need to create turnovers to eliminate big plays.”

Cincinnati forced Temple sophomore quarterback P.J. Walker to fumble on his own 3-yard line early in the second quarter, and soon capitalized with a 3-yard touchdown reception for junior Mekale McKay to grab the lead for the first and last time.

While the defense never did find its big play, the team’s offense failed to find the end zone.

“Give credit to our defense,” coach Matt Rhule said. “They really held [Cincinnati] to seven. We turned the ball over on the 3-yard line. … But we’re not going to win when we don’t get turnovers. And then we turned the football over and we don’t get points. … It’s hard to win when you have those.”

Through 11 games, though, the defense has allowed an average of 18.8 points per game, along with 354.5 yards per game. While the unit has given up yards in bunches at times this season, opponents have been turned away with points in the redzone 25.8 percent of the time, a mark that ranks Temple No. 17 in Division I. Last season, opponents scored on 44 of 52 attempts in the redzone, an 84.6-percent mark.

A year ago, moreover, the team allowed 29.8 points per game last year, an 11-point difference per game from this season.

“The funny part is, it’s the same players from last year,” senior receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick said. “I think it’s just tremendous attention to detail. [Defensive coordinator Phil] Snow is a tremendous coach, and I just think they play with a lot of passion and want-to. I think it’s just a combination of those things and just being in the second year of that defensive system, it makes them better.”

Andrew Parent can be reached at andrew.parent@temple.edu and on twitter @Andrew_Parent23

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