Matt Rhule approaches his team like a disgruntled dad.
During dinner time on the road, the second-year coach forces his players to ignore their cell phones and other electronics in order for them to speak with one another.
“In the age of cell phones, Facebook and Twitter, you can go a whole day without talking to the guy next to you,” Rhule said. “We go out and we sit in dinner and I want them to take their phones out and talk to the guy next to them.”
The Owls’ fraternal mentality on the road has led to results in their first two road games, as they recorded their second road victory in a 36-10 win against Connecticut last Saturday.
The defense added three turnovers to its rapidly increasing turnover total with two interceptions from junior Tavon Young and redshirt-sophomore Nate L. Smith, along with a fumble returned for a touchdown.
Rhule made it a priority to show junior linebacker and defensive captain Tyler Matakevich the improvements the team made through the course of a year.
“I showed them some clips of last year and then I showed them clips from this year,” Rhule said. “I think they could see how much better they’re playing.”
While Matakevich’s total number of tackles isn’t on pace to match that of last year’s, the entire defense has improved in the stat sheet, jumping from No. 108 to No. 13 in NCAA Division I total defensive rankings.
Temple’s defense also increased its turnover total against UConn, as the Owls are now tied for second among all Division I FBS schools with 17 turnovers.
The increase in turnovers has been attributed to many factors, defensive coordinator Phil Snow said, but the main difference the past year has made is understanding the defensive playbook, resulting in faster, more aggressive play.
“The guys are learning what to do, and they’re in position,” Snow said. “Everybody has made great strides, and this doesn’t work unless we do that.”
“Defense is a reaction game, offense is a whole different game,” Snow said. “If you don’t quite know what you’re doing and your eye progressions aren’t good then you won’t be going where you’re supposed to.”
Snow, who has coached in the NFL, stressed to his fellow coaches the patience it would require for his young defense to reap the benefits of his defensive scheme.
“A year ago I told [Rhule] and all of the defensive coaches ‘Stay with the process,’” Snow said. “We’ve got all these guys for two or three years. … There’s a number of guys on this team that have improved because they’ve bought in and the coaches have done a good job with them.”
The Owls also rank in the Top 5 in defensive scoring among Division I schools by adding three more scores against the Huskies.
The defensive line, a group that has scored four defensive touchdowns in as many games, has been a main contributor to the defensive scores.
For sophomore defensive lineman Sharif Finch, the defensive touchdowns create an impact on the flow of the game, as they can put teams behind and then focus on the pass.
“Whenever you get them playing from behind, you can use your speed off the edge,” Finch said. “We’re really fast off the edge, so having that advantage can really help us.”
Tavon Young’s 93-yard interception return marked the game’s first score, as Praise Martin-Oguike’s 11-yard fumble recovery marked the second defensive touchdown of the game.
The coaching staff made increasing turnovers a priority for the defense during the offseason.
“We really made an emphasis on turnovers and the guys are really learning what to do and it’s making a difference,” Snow said. “We’re thinking ‘Get the ball.’”
Matakevich attributed the increase in forced turnovers to the coaching staff’s efforts.
“The coaches have just been getting on us,” Matakevich said. “In practice they’ve been telling us that we have to create turnovers, eliminate big plays and hustle, and guys really just bought in and they’re just making plays.”
Matakevich also claimed that, because of motivation, the team’s turnovers come in bunches.
“Once one guy makes one you’ll hear guys on the sideline screaming ‘I’m going to get one next,” Matakevich said.
EJ Smith can be reached at email@example.com and on twitter @ejsmitty17