The last two weeks, Temple’s defense has been missing something.
Fundamentals and a certain approach the team even had during its 2-10 season in 2013.
“We have a mentality of if you get in the red zone, we’re not going to let you score,” senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich said after Temple (9-2 and 6-1 in the American Athletic Conference) defeated Memphis, the No. 21 team in the College Football Playoff Rankings, 31-12 Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field. “We finally got that back, got that edge back. You saw it today.”
After allowing 40-plus points in back-to-back games, the Owls held the Tigers, the No. 6 scoring offense in the Football Bowl Subdivision, to 12 points. It was also Memphis’ first game without a touchdown since Sept. 27, 2014, against the University of Mississippi.
The Tigers’ 12 points were also the fewest they’ve scored since beating Temple, 16-13, Nov. 7, 2014.
“That’s Temple defense,” Matakevich said. “We had it in us all along and unfortunately the previous two weeks we weren’t clicking. This week was big. We said, ‘We have to get back to our fundamentals. And that’s playing hard-nosed, tough football for four quarters and being the more physical team.”
Matakevich finished with 11 tackles and with his fourth tackle on the game, the linebacker became the seventh player in FBS history to record at least 100 tackles in four seasons. He now has 107 this season.
While he said the accomplishment was “pretty cool,” Matakevich was happier with his unit’s play.
“I’m just so excited with how the team played today,” he said. “That just defined our defense, how good we can be at times. We need to do (that) all the time.”
Temple’s defense faced some early adversity against the Tigers, as the Owls’ first two possessions were stalled by turnovers in Memphis territory. Running back Jahad Thomas fumbled on the first drive, while quarterback P.J. Walker underthrew wide receiver Robby Anderson in the end zone on the second.
The Owls’ defense held Memphis to three points after the turnovers and four field goals on the day.
“It’s big,” defensive coordinator Phil Snow said, “especially because of the way we’ve played the last two weeks. For these guys to come back the way they did, it’s hard to do.”
“It comes down to the players making plays,” Snow added. “Our corners did a great job, but the D-line dominated. They took over the line of scrimmage. Memphis couldn’t pass block and we knocked them back in the run game.”
Memphis junior quarterback Paxton Lynch struggled against the Owls’ defense, as the 6-foot-7-inch quarterback threw for 156 yards and no touchdowns. He did complete 73.5 percent of his passes, but his longest play was a 21-yard gain.
“You have to remember I coached a lot of years in the Pac-10 conference when we had first-rounders every year,” Snow said. “I coached in the NFL and saw Tom Brady. Maybe coaches who haven’t seen all of those guys are intimated, but I’m not. We can defend those guys.”
Overall, Memphis finished with 232 yards of total offense—its fewest this season and first game under 400 yards—and 76 rushing yards, an area Temple had struggled with in its previous three games. In its 44-23 loss at USF last week, TU allowed 326 yards on the ground.
With South Florida beating Cincinnati on Friday night, Temple came into Saturday knowing it had to beat Memphis to continue to control its own destiny in The American.
South Florida holds the tiebreaker in The American and faces a winless Central Florida team in its final game next week. Had Temple lost Saturday, it would have had to beat UConn and have South Florida lose next week to get into the conference championship game.
“We know what is at stake,” Matakevich said. “We are considering [UConn] a playoff game. If you win you keep on going and if we lose, we go home. We’re using it to motivate us to win the next game.”
While the Owls’ defense was dominant against Memphis, Walker led the Temple offense to its fifth game of at least 30 points. The junior QB completed 14 of 26 passes for 261 yards, two touchdowns and an INT. He surpassed Henry Burris as the program’s all-time leader with 50 career passing touchdowns with his second TD.
As he has the last few weeks, Walker also has shown a willingness to run.
He picked up 54 yards on seven carries, including a 16-yard gain on third down in the third quarter. On the play, he escaped pressure from Memphis, escaped the pocket and picked up the first down. Temple had 23 first downs Saturday.
That third-quarter drive bled into the fourth quarter, and the Owls finished it with a 13-yard touchdown run by tight end Kip Patton that gave them a 21-12 lead. The Owls added 10 more points in the final quarter.
“I’m proud of him. He’s always been a really good quarterback,” coach Matt Rhule said of Walker. “He has always been a winner. I thought he made some big plays with his legs. We have a lot of confidence in him, and he is really developing into one of the better players in the league.”
Tom Dougherty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @todougherty.