On a rainy October night in North Carolina last year, the Owls’ offense struggled to get going against the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The team dropped four passes in the first half, and only led by seven points at halftime against a team they were listed as 22.5-point favorites against.
Going into this year’s homecoming matchup against the 49ers at Lincoln Financial Field as a heavy favorite, the Owls are keeping last year’s game in mind.
“It’s going to be real tough,” senior running back Jahad Thomas said. “They played us very well last year. …We couldn’t really establish the running game, we had a few drops. They played hard the whole game. It definitely was a battle up until late in the fourth quarter. So we just got to go out there and do what we can do, do what we can control because we know they’re going to bring it like every team should.”
The Owls had a 20-point third quarter on the way to a 37-3 win on Oct. 2, 2015. Senior quarterback Phillip Walker threw two touchdown passes and Thomas ran for two touchdowns. He accounted for 109 of the team’s 206 rushing yards.
The offensive line, which did not allow a sack in the game, has been a concern for coach Matt Rhule through three games. The team’s most glaring issues are offensive line play and allowing big plays on defense, he said at Tuesday’s press conference. The Owls have allowed nine sacks and averaged 3.1 yards per carry, which ranks No. 115 in Division I.
Charlotte’s defensive line features redshirt-senior Larry Ogunjobi, whom Rhule called an NFL player this week. He is on the watch list for this year’s Bednarik Award and Outland Trophy. Ogunjobi’s 37 career tackles for loss rank ninth among active players. The 49ers have held their last two opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing.
The Owls passed for 286 yards, but only rushed for 38 yards against Penn State.
“The running backs are never really the issue in the running game,” Rhule said. “They’re the issue in terms of big plays. It’s the offensive line. We’re just not playing well upfront. That’s the reality of it.”
Temple needs better performances from redshirt-freshman Jovahn Fair and redshirt-junior Brian Carter, Rhule said. Freshman Matt Hennessy should get some time this week, he added.
The Owls’ offense should be able to put up points Saturday afternoon. The 49ers have allowed 480 total yards per game and 40.3 points per game, which is the 11th-most in Division I. Charlotte, playing in its second year at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, is second-to last in USA Today’s most recent FBS rankings.
On the offensive side of the ball, the 49ers are led by redshirt-junior quarterback Kevin Olsen and senior running back Kalif Phillips. Olsen, the younger brother of Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, has completed about 60 percent of his passes for four touchdowns. Phillips, a second-team All-Conference USA selection in 2015, gained 125 yards on 19 carries in last year’s game.
“From what I’ve seen, he’s like both,” sophomore defensive back Delvon Randall said. “He got a little speed with him. He’s a big back. Short, but like he’s a power back but then he can make someone miss at the same time.”
Saturday will be the Owls’ final nonconference test as they look to earn a win after committing 13 penalties in last week’s loss to Penn State.
“Everybody has to own up to it, but as an older guy I know that you have to just man up to your mistakes,” senior offensive lineman Dion Dawkins said. “Mistakes will happen. Nobody’s perfect. You can impress way more people how you’re going to do the next play instead of that play that you just did bad. So I mean we’re just focused on moving on.”
Evan Easterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.