Owls offense stagnant in loss to Tigers

Temple University football lost to the University of Memphis 24-3 after leading the game 3-0 at halftime.

Redshirt-freshman cornerback Jalen McMurray throws up a fist after making a play against Rutgers University on Sept. 17. | ERIKA MONN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

When Temple football hired defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot in January 2022, the Owls were expecting their “basketball school defensive coordinator” to stabilize a group in need of an identity. Eliot showed why head coach Stan Drayton put faith in the formerly inconsistent coordinator, holding the Tigers to zero first half points. 

And while it seemed like Eliot’s defense was doing its job, Temple’s offense could not capitalize as a unit. The Owls had two more drives end in three-and-outs than in extended downs, forcing Temple’s defense to rise to the occasion. And they did, for three quarters. 

Temple University football (2-3, 0-1 The American Athletic Conference) lost to the University of Memphis (4-1, 2-0 The American) 24-3 after Memphis scored three touchdowns in the final 17 minutes at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium in Memphis, Tennessee. 

With seven minutes remaining in their game against Memphis, Temple’s defense allowed Tigers sophomore quarterback Seth Henigan to find redshirt-junior tight end Caden Prieskorn for a four-yard touchdown across the middle of the field. Prieskorn was left wide open in the endzone, a breakdown for a Temple defense who spent a total of 34 minutes on the field. 

Temple had six straight shutout quarters against the University of Massachusetts (1-3) and Memphis. The Owls are a different defense from the one who gave up 30 points against Duke University (3-1, 0-0 The Atlantic Coast Conference) in the season-opener. They have played a quicker brand of football, making open-field tackles and sticking with receivers in coverage. 

Throughout the 2021 season, Temple only recorded 15 sacks as a team, averaging 1.25 sacks per game. So far this season, Temple has 20 sacks across five games, with five coming against Memphis. 

“They’re buying into the system, they know what they’re doing,” Drayton said during a press conference on Sept. 19. “There’s a lot of confidence on that side of the field.”

Without Tigers graduate left tackle Austin Myers and redshirt-sophomore left guard Jonah Gambill, Henigan was under more pressure for the entirety of the first half than he is accustomed to. With the staunch Temple defensive line play alongside quality defense from their secondary, Memphis had nowhere to go on the field. 

Temple’s offense was also inefficient during the first half. True freshman quarterback E.J. Warner went seven of 15 for 133 yards during the first two quarters, but one long completion to redshirt-junior receiver Jose Barbon went for 78 of those yards. The Owls made it to the Memphis four-yard line and were unable to convert on four downs after the long play. 

In the second quarter, Barbon dropped a well-placed third down pass from Warner that would’ve yielded 25 yards. The inconsistency in Temple’s first half offense did not mirror the defense’s reliable play. 

Eliot’s defense came with many different looks for Henigan to have to deal with. Whether it was third-down nickel packages or a stacked box preventing a Memphis run gain, Eliot trusted in his secondary’s coverage abilities, allowing for Temple to disrupt the backfield on several occasions. 

Entering the game, five different Memphis receivers had at least 10 receptions. Henigan had 1,081 yards through the air, as five receivers had at least 100 receiving yards. Against Temple, Prieskorn led Memphis with only 40 yards. The Tigers also came into the game averaging 37 points-per-game. 

It was not until there was one minute and 36 seconds left in the third quarter that Memphis got on the board. Henigan led the Tigers on a 10-play 45-yard drive stemming from a Kick-Catch Interference on Temple’s punt. Redshirt-sophomore running back Brandon Thomas punched a two-yard touchdown home.

The Tigers used this play as momentum, stuffing the Owls on defense and forcing Temple’s defensive mistakes. The Owls’ play calling faltered on both sides of the ball, trying to claw their way back into a 17-3 game, culminating in a Warner interception by Memphis graduate linebacker Xavier Cullens with just more than five minutes remaining. Warner threw three picks in the fourth quarter. 

The Owls showed their defensive potential, but without a complementary offense, the Memphis time of possession eventually led to points. 

Temple looks to bounce back against the University of Central Florida (3-1, 0-0 The American) on Oct. 13 in Orlando, Florida. 

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