Owls defy odds, upset Vanderbilt

P.J. Walker (center) celebrates with teammates after rushing for a touchdown in the third quarter of Temple's 37-7 win at Vanderbilt Thursday. | Hua Zong TTN
P.J. Walker (center) celebrates with teammates after rushing for a touchdown in the third quarter of Temple's 37-7 win at Vanderbilt Thursday. | Hua Zong TTN

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A 92-minute delay, courtesy of rain and sporadic lightning through the evening hours, made for an auspicious start at Vanderbilt Stadium Thursday night.

A first quarter in which the Temple’s offense was near-dormant, despite kicking off the scoring late in the period, emphasized that tone. Yet, as the second quarter closed to an exuberant Owls squad headed to the locker room amid a chorus of boos from the Vanderbilt auxiliary, the ominous mood had jumped sides.

The Owls, having not beaten a Southeastern Conference opponent in 76 years, shocked their season-opening opponents, and most of the 31,731 fans in attendance, with a rousing 37-7 upset defeat of the Commodores.

Junior receiver Brandon Shippen, who switched to wideout from cornerback during the summer, opened the scoring with a 35-yard touchdown reception from sophomore quarterback P.J. Walker midway through the first quarter. The score marked Shippen’s first collegiate reception.

“My confidence is good,” Shippen said. “Just from camp and spring ball, I just feel like I can make plays when the ball is in my hands. It’s just from practicing every day, it gives a lot of confidence to all the players.”

The touchdown grab, caught on a slant route, got the Owls off the mark and on the scoreboard first amid what was a sloppy and cagey first quarter that saw a total of seven punts.

Excluding the Shippen score, Walker’s longest pass of the quarter went to senior Jalen Fitzpatrick for eight yards. Overall, the sophomore amassed 59 yards passing in the period.

Walker helped offset the rough start, though, when he helped the Owls cap a nine-play, 64-yard drive in the second quarter, capped by a 15-yard touchdown pass on a screen to Fitzpatrick.

The Commodores (0-1) caught a break early in the second quarter when, backed up against his own endzone, Owls’ senior receiver and long snapper John Christopher’s snap on a punt attempt sailed well over the head of punter Tyler Mayes and into the endzone, in which Vanderbilt smothered the ball and tied the score.

The Owls (1-0) found momentum in the second quarter off a controversial call, though, and never lost it.

One minute, 42 seconds after Fitzpatrick’s score, Temple defensive lineman Avery Ellis sacked Rivers on the Owls’ 45-yard line, whose knee appeared to hit the ground before the football escaped his clutches. Defensive lineman Averee Robinson promptly scooped the ball and ran 55 yards into the endzone nary a whistle, and the Owls had a 21-7 lead heading into halftime.

In the second half, the Owls dominated, outscoring the Commodores 16-0 en route to the rout result.

Vanderbilt’s offensive struggles started early in sync with the Owls’ initial attacking issues, but then continued throughout the contest, as Commodores’ new coach Derek Mason had used three different quarterbacks by game’s end.

Sophomore Patton Robinette, Thursday’s starter at quarterback, graduate-senior Stephen Rivers and redshirt freshman Johnny McCreary all saw time under center, and combined to hit 16 of 34 passes for 224 yards and three interceptions.

Junior cornerback Tavon Young, recently branded with the No. 1 jersey when the team selected its “tough guys,” had two of them.

“Interceptions are good, but I do it for the team, though,” Young said. “It’s not just about me. I just worry about making plays so the offense gets back on the field. It was all about the team [Thursday].”

Vanderbilt freshman running back Ralph Webb picked up 70 yards on the ground in 14 carries, but logged 49 of those rushing yards in the first half. Overall, Temple held the Commodores to 258 total yards and forced seven turnovers (three interceptions, four fumbles).

“I was happy so many guys did it,” Rhule said. “I don’t know what the picks were, you guys probably know better than me, but to see our defensive line play at that level, to see us pick balls off, every guy that we weren’t redshirting played today and that’s really great for us.”

After his first quarter struggles, Walker picked up his play and wound up finishing having completed 23 of 34 passes for 201 yards, a pair of touchdown passes and a score on the ground.

“We ran our plays that we ran from about three days ago,” Walker said. “We know our offense and we’re confident enough to go out there and be as good as we can be and play at a high level.”

The Owls will undoubtedly face a test when they pit themselves against Navy and its triple-option offense in the home opener next Saturday at 1 p.m.

For now, though, they can savor the opening-night win on foreign turf.

“You know what I’m excited about? I don’t feel like I showed [the team] anything,” Rhule said. “I think they showed that they did that. They picked all those passes off. They handled adversity. They fumbled a snap in the endzone and they find a way. I was just really happy and pleased with them.

Andrew Parent can be reached at andrew.parent@temple.edu or on Twitter @daParent93.

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