Running away with it

The defensive corps celebrates Avery Robinson’s 55-yard touchdown fumble recovery. Hua Zong | TTN
The defensive corps celebrates Avery Robinson’s 55-yard touchdown fumble recovery. Hua Zong | TTN

The spread showed  a line of 16.5.

The Owls were steep underdogs when Las Vegas’ South Point sports book opened about a month before last Thursday’s season-opener at Vanderbilt.

The day of the game, the spread sat at 13, before dropping to 10 and finally to a nine-point spread just before kickoff. Apparently, the bulk of the bettors began to speculate that Vanderbilt’s advantage over Temple, a two-win team just nine months ago, was less of a given than it should have been.

After all, the Owls were paying visit to Vanderbilt, a Southeastern Conference opponent boasting nine-win teams in each of the last two seasons.

But Vegas’ finest weren’t the only pundits who saw the numerous holes in a Vanderbilt side that started a sophomore quarterback, a redshirt freshman at tailback and several freshmen and sophomores on defense.

Linebackers coach Mike Siravo informed his defensive corps of one of Vanderbilt’s biggest weaknesses well before game time, when rain fell in droves and lightning blared overhead amid a 97-minute rain delay prior to a 10:52 p.m. CST kickoff.

“We knew [Vanderbilt] had a lot of inexperienced guys,” junior middle linebacker Tyler Matakevich said. “[Linebackers coach Mike Siravo] broke it down for us before the game. Their leading wide receiver [sophomore Jordan Cunningham] had 15 catches last year, and [Commodores junior running back Brian Kimbrow] had 87 touches last year and he didn’t even play. We knew we had to shut down the run.”

That they did. While Vanderbilt’s intriguing redshirt freshman Ralph Webb managed 70 yards on 16 carries, Temple stifled everybody else, holding the Commodores’ additional rushing attempts to a combined minus-16 yards on the ground en route to the Owls’ 37-7 toppling of their hosts on national television.

While much of the nation nestled itself in restful sleep during the late hour, Temple’s defense continued to dominate the line of scrimmage and pound Vanderbilt’s inexperienced and ineffective offensive attack.

A name not even listed in the Owls’ pre-game depth chart, junior defensive back Will Hayes, led the Owls with four solo tackles and assisted on two others. Linebackers Matakevich and redshirt junior Nate D. Smith registered three tackles apiece.

Moreover, Temple’s pass rush made life difficult for each of the three signal callers summoned by first-year Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, which played a part in the Owls forcing seven turnovers, including a pair of interceptions for junior cornerback Tavon Williams and a fumble forced by redshirt sophomore defensive end Avery Ellis. Sophomore nose tackle Averee Robinson subsequently recovered the fumble and hauled it into the endzone to put Temple ahead by two scores just before halftime.

“That was a big momentum shift,” Ellis said of the six-point fumble. “I was surprised how free I came, but when I saw the opportunity, I had to take it. I thought it was a big swing. The crowd went silent and things went our way from there.”

While that play further emphasized the direction in which the contest was headed, the initial tone set loudly by Temple’s defense had been long-since established.

Settling in on his first drive of the night, Vanderbilt’s sophomore quarterback Patton Robinette had rushed for three yards on his team’s first offensive play, and then handed off to Webb for four more.

On 3rd-and-3, Robinette barked out his cadence before taking the snap. He dropped back and shuffled his feet after securing the ball, and was promptly dropped by Ellis for the first of the defensive end’s two sacks.

By then, the tone had been firmly stamped. The first of four Temple sacks foreshadowed of what was to come through the course of the next 55 minutes, 13 seconds: a coming-out party of sorts for a much-maligned defense that ranked among the nation’s worst during a tumultuous three-month period last fall.

“When you prepare like we did and with everything we’ve been through in the past year, and we knew how hard we worked this offseason,” Matakevich said. “To just come out and execute [defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s] defense like that, and from my standpoint from the defensive side of the ball, it was just phenomenal.”

Once the stirring upset was over, the Owls’ defense had picked off as many passes – three – as it did through the entirety of last season. They had recovered four fumbles, racked up four sacks for a total loss of 26 yards and ran a young Commodores offense ragged through 60 minutes.

Along with notable performances for recognizable names in Matakevich and Young, newer faces like Ellis, Robinson and junior defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis, who opened eyes with a pair of solo tackles and a sack during the meat of the contest, all chipped in valuable contributions.

While Temple and its defense will face a different type of test when Navy and its triple-option offense hits town Saturday, Matakevich and the rest of his group now have a legitimate positive in which to ride moving forward, and firm evidence of their ability to dominate a game on a relevant stage.

“To start a season like this is a phenomenal feeling,” Matakevich said. “We knew what this team could do last year and we were coming up short. We just really wanted to set the tone and right now it’s a great start, but we still have a long way to go.”

Andrew Parent can be reached at andrew.parent@temple.edu and on twitter @daParent93

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