Passing troubles defense

Rutgers redshirt-junior wide receiver Brandon Coleman leaps to make a catch. The Owls have had trouble rushing the passer and defending the pass. | Hua Zong TTN
Rutgers redshirt-junior wide receiver Brandon Coleman leaps to make a catch. The Owls have had trouble rushing the passer and defending the pass. | Hua Zong TTN

PISCATAWAY, N.J. – When Tyler Matakevich saw Gary Nova’s stats after the game on Saturday, all he did was shake his head and quietly say, “Damn.”

Nova, Rutgers’ maligned junior quarterback, had thrown one touchdown and seven interceptions in the two previous games and needed a good game against Temple to keep his starting job. He came through, going 27-for-38 with 371 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Nova became the sixth quarterback to throw for 300 or more yards against Temple this season.

“I knew Gary Nova would bounce back,” coach Matt Rhule said. “He’s played a lot of football and everyone was talking about him all week, and I knew their staff and their players would probably rally around him.”

One of the reasons Nova played so well was the amount of time he had to make throws. Temple sacked him twice, but there were multiple occasions where Nova either avoided the pass rush by scrambling or threw the ball before any pass rusher got close to him.

“He seemed pretty elusive out there,” senior linebacker Blaze Caponegro said. “We had some pressure on him a few times and he got away. He’s a good ballplayer. He made some good plays out there, and at the end of the game they put the ball in his hands and he wound up making a big play for them. Hats off to them. He finished the game strong for him. He played well.”

On the game-winning play, Temple rushed seven men, leaving the defensive backs to cover the wide receivers one-on-one. Redshirt-senior cornerback Zamel Johnson was matched up with sophomore wideout Leonte Carroo, and Carroo beat Johnson for the touchdown.

“I said, ‘Send them,’” Rhule said. “I wanted to go after [Nova]. I didn’t want to watch it anymore, so I said, ‘Hey, we’re going to go after him.’ As we get more experience, you’d like to think he’d be off and he’d know they’re going to throw the fade, but he walked up and bumped him and the guy just beat him. As I told them, it’s on me, it’s on the staff, it’s on the players. It’s not on Zamel. He’s out there trying to cover that guy, and we need him to cover him, but it’s also on the guys [on the front seven]. We outnumbered them. It’s on the guys that blitzed. It’s on the guys that are trying to get there. We’ve all got to go get there, and we didn’t.”

The Owls allow 507.9 yards of offense per game, ranking 118th, or sixth from the bottom, in the nation. The passing defense is the main reason for that. Temple allows 322.2 yards per game through the air, which is 121st in the country – third to last. The rushing defense is more middle-of-the-pack, allowing 185.7 yards per game, which ranks 87th in the FBS.

“Their offensive line did a good job protecting,” sophomore defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis said. “The defensive line, I feel like we really pass rushed well together as a unit. Feeling each other in the pocket, trying to figure out where each other were. We got there a couple times. It’s always good to pressure the quarterback. Make him a little nervous in the pocket. It affects his throwing and overall helps our defense.”

Ioannidis leads the team with 3.0 sacks on the season, putting him in a tie for 13th in the American Athletic Conference. Temple, with 1.56 sacks  per game, is 89th in the nation  and second-to-last in The American, only leading Connecticut. Temple’s inability to stop the passing game is at least partially because of the struggle to consistently rush the passer.

“As a player, the coaches tell us to put our trust in them, buy into what they’re saying,” Ioannidis said. “I honestly do believe that the coaches are going to put whoever is out on the field who they believe is going to help win the game. If they choose other guys, those are the guys who are going to help us win the game. I don’t think it’s hurting us. I think we have a good, solid rotation. Everyone stays fresh, the legs are always healthy.”

“It’s been a rough year so far,” Matakevich, a sophomore linebacker, said. “If we could just finish up strong and get momentum going into next year, we get everybody back pretty much. If we could just get some momentum going into next year, I think that would be good for us.”

The linebackers, led by Matakevich, have been the bright spot this year for the defense. Matakevich leads the nation in solo tackles with 86, which is 28 more than the second-place player – Navy senior linebacker Cody Peterson. Matakevich is on pace to record 115 solo tackles, which would be the most in a season by any player since 2002.

Caponegro returned after missing the previous two games and recorded six tackles, including one for a loss, and recovered one fumble.

“I think we’ve definitely improved as a team,” Caponegro said. “Our main focus up to this point … comes down to finishing the game in all four quarters. Sometimes we’ve been struggling to do that, and I think today we came out and played four quarters. Like I said, it came down to a few plays here and there and Rutgers making a big play at the end. Hats off to our team and their team, but I think we came together and played well as a team today.”

Freshman safety Jihaad Pretlow got the start this week after outplaying redshirt-freshman Stephaun Marshall recently. Pretlow, whose father and uncle played at Rutgers, had a rough game, being whistled for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and getting beaten on Carroo’s first touchdown.

“Jihaad went in after about nine snaps last week at SMU,” Rhule said. “Some of the other guys weren’t playing great, so we put Jihaad in and he played OK against SMU. There was a crucial hit to the quarterback when he was on the ground, and the long double post touchdown. We’re living through some of those things right now. We just keep trying to correct them. Jihaad’s a smart kid. He’s shown to be physical at times and he runs well.”

Despite all the troubles, Temple is improving on defense. Rutgers had 440 yards from scrimmage – the second-lowest amount the Owls have allowed all year.

“We’re definitely not making as much mistakes as we were in the beginning,” Matakevich said. “Don’t get me wrong, we’re still making mistakes. But kids are coming along … We’re young, but they just keep pushing, pushing. We’re almost there. We were about a few inches short today, but that’s the game of football.”

Evan Cross can be reached at evan.cross@temple.edu or on  Twitter @EvanCross.

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