P.J. Walker was a prisoner of his own scheme.
The sophomore quarterback averaged 4.3 yards per pass in his first drive against the Vanderbilt Commodores, nearly half of what he averaged the year before.
Walker’s average, mostly made up of wide receiver screen passes resulting in three and two yards respectively during the six-play drive, proved fruitless early on.
After a loss of three yards on a similar screen pass to redshirt sophomore Khalif Herbin, the gameplan began to look stale. But, patience in a spread offense can mean the difference between an upset win over a Southeastern Conference school and a 30-point loss to a beatable team.
During the game, the Owls habitually tossed passes down the line of scrimmage to receivers Herbin and senior Jalen Fitzpatrick.
Responsible for counting the number of defenders on the defensive line and linebacker corps, and making his read accordingly, Walker was forced to settle for wasted plays.
“We’ve made the move to become a spread team. When we do that we just read the box count,” Rhule said. “Sometimes you’ll just throw it out there and get six, two, minus-2.
“We’re just going to be patient, and just realize that some good plays and some bad plays are going to be there,” Rhule added.
Rhule displayed patience, a trait necessary for young coaches. Rhule’s patience eventually resulted in exactly the outcome the spread option was designed to accomplish.
After the continuous screens, the Owls countered their routine on a fake screen to a wheel route for Khalif Herbin, a player who can operate in space. The play-action pass resulted in a 17-yard gain.
The defensive backs gradually cheated closer and closer to the line of scrimmage, looking to combat the quick screen passes. The closer they cheated, the more ground they were forced to cover in the event of a progressive route down the field.
With Vanderbilt sophomore cornerback Torren McGaster covering junior receiver Brandon Shippen early in the first quarter, the Owls ran a double slant. The top route, run by Shippen, who had beaten McGaster, took advantage of redshirt freshman safety Oren Burks’ focus on the possibility of another screen. The play resulted in the game’s first touchdown.
This is what the spread offense is meant to do.
In addition to the early struggles in the screen game, the running game got off to a slow start. The Owls averaged a 1.2 yards per carry in the first three drives of the game, including two sniffed-out quarterback option runs for losses of six and five yards respectively.
Rushing yards proved crucial to the Owls scoring points in 2013. In their three highest-scoring games last season, the offense averaged 5.2 yards per carry, one yard more than their season average of 4.2. Contrarily, in the offense’s three lowest-scoring games, it managed just shy of three yards per carry.
The disparity oftentimes proved to be the difference in the game, like its 30-7 loss to Louisville. The Owls averaged their season worst 1.7 yards per carry in that contest, and as a result, allowed four sacks, also a season high.
The body shots that the run provides tires out defensive fronts and helps open up the passing game by allowing Walker more time to operate in the pocket as a result of a more tired pass rush.
When Temple averaged more than 5.5 yards per carry, the passing game flourished, averaging 8.5 yards per pass in those games – more than a yard higher than its season average of 7.2.
“I think any time you establish the run it’s going to have an effect,” Rhule said. “It’s going to wear the defense down.”
Rhule’s patience during the game displays a crucial progression needed to be made by head coaches, sticking to the gameplan.
Fortunately for Rhule, his counterpart showed him exactly what to avoid.
Coach Derek Mason, in his first game with the Commodores, abandoned his starting quarterback, only to waver back and forth through his second and third-string quarterbacks in a distraction of an offensive showing.
Mason’s mistakes and Rhule’s patience made all the difference in the schematic aspect of the game.
While Vanderbilt found itself stuck in a carousel of quarterbacks and played sloppily, the Owls stuck to the gameplan laid out weeks in the making, and as a result, executed their plays and protected the football.
The game displayed the importance of patience in a spread offense. Temple, a team coming off a 2-10 season in a mediocre conference, went on the road to a new-look team in the best conference in college football and forced seven turnovers, scoring 37 points in a game that wasn’t even close.
A game in which the Owls were underdogs by a 16.5 point-spread.
EJ Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @ejsmitty17