Coming into the 2023 season, Temple Football (2-4, 0-2 American Athletic Conference) had one goal: win an AAC championship.
Temple’s lack of success in the win column led head coach Stan Drayton to give a cliché, yet truthful answer to his assessment of the season so far in his weekly Monday press conference.
“I’d like to have more wins,” Drayton said. “When things seem tough these are the times when Temple Owls step up.”
While the overall goal is still obtainable, Temple’s start to the season has made achieving its goals more difficult. The Owls’ struggles on the offensive line, injuries and an overall poor defensive performance stand out as reasons for their disappointing start.
Standout offensive linemen Adam Klein and Isaac Moore graduated at the end of last season, leaving the Owls with little depth along their line. Drayton filled those spots with a combination of junior college transfers and freshmen.
“We addressed [the offensive line depth] with some young talent,” Drayton said. “We’re going to need these young guys to play for us when their number is called.”
Drayton’s words held true. Transfer Diego Barajas, freshman Luke Watson, redshirt-freshman Jackson Pruitt and redshirt-sophomore Jon Fagley have all played significant snaps this season.
Naturally, those players have struggled with adapting to a new level of play, and the rest of the line has as well.
“There’s a lot more we can get out of them for sure,” Drayton said. “We have to continue to work with the guys that we have. We have to put them in the best position to perform within their strengths.”
The Owls’ overall poor play on the offensive line has contributed to the slow start offensively, specifically in the run game.
Temple’s best game on the ground was a 290-yard performance against Norfolk State. In the five other games this season, the Owls have totaled just 254 rushing yards.
“[The run game is] just not good enough,” Drayton said. “We’ll try to do some things that are different. We’ll figure it out.”
Single-digit running back Edward Saydee was benched after he struggled in the first two games. After his 142-yard performance against Norfolk State, Joquez Smith has been unable to recreate that production, and Darvon Hubbard has been consistent, but not spectacular.
The lack of a quality run game has forced quarterback E.J. Warner to attempt 271 passes, the most passes in the nation through six weeks.
Warner’s 1,741 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions may look good on paper, but his totals are the result of volume rather than efficiency. Warner has only completed 56 percent of his passes.
While his numbers may be inflated, Warner has made the most of the little time he has to throw the ball. He continuously scrambles outside the pocket, rushes throws and takes hits because he doesn’t have time to scan the field.
This offseason, former Temple Football chief of staff Everett Withers returned as defensive coordinator after a brief two-month stint as FAU’s assistant head coach.
When he signed on, Withers said not much would change about the defense.
“When Stan called me about the job, I didn’t want to change anything the kids already knew,” Withers said. “My goal was to continue on with what was in place.”
With another year in the scheme, the defense was expected to take a step forward. That has not happened.
Injuries have played a role in the defensive shortcomings, with several key players missing time, including cornerback Jalen McMurray, linebackers Yvandy Rigby and D.J. Woodbury and defensive linemen Allan Haye and Demerick Morris.
However, the team has preached having each others’ backs and always being ready to step up and play.
“It should be a next man up mentality,” said linebacker Jordan Magee. “No matter who goes down, I’m confident in my teammates to do their thing.”
Regardless, the defense still has not performed well. The Owls are third in the AAC in points allowed per game and fourth in average yards allowed.
Poor execution has been a point of emphasis when discussing why the defense has struggled. Missed assignments, bad tackling and lack of gap discipline have all been mentioned by both coaches and players.
After allowing UTSA quarterback Frank Harris to have his best statistical game of the season, Magee was stern with the defensive performance.
“I messed up a play, I can name other guys that messed up a play,” Magee said. “But, as a defense, we did not play good.”
Temple currently sits at 0-2 in conference play, putting both its goal of an AAC championship and its first bowl game berth since 2019 in jeopardy.
With several vulnerable conference opponents left on the schedule, the Owls have a chance to turn their season around. However, they’ll need to look in the mirror and solve their internal issues before they can compete for an AAC championship.