With the Owls’ postseason hopes coming down to one final game, Matt Rhule’s expectations have become transparent.
The second-year coach’s offense has managed to score two touchdowns while committing seven turnovers in its last two games, both of which were losses.
“I think I know where we are,” Rhule said. “We just aren’t scoring a ton of points. We’ve got one more game to try and get them to score 14 to 21 points and have our defense play well and win the football game. That’s where we are. Where we are is where we are. Offensively, we aren’t scoring points.”
For Rhule, the offense – which averaged 2.2 yards per carry as a team en route to a 14-6 loss to Cincinnati last Saturday – may not be correctable in the short time until its final game.
“I don’t know if change anything going into next week,” Rhule said. “We’ve worked tirelessly trying to get [the running game] right. We can try and do it better, but anything that you struggle with all year is probably going to be a long term thing.”
Sophomore quarterback P.J. Walker, who compiled a 54.3 completion percentage, fell victim to three sacks and multiple disrupted plays, resulting in 12 carries for the struggling signal caller.
“They were pretty good up front,” Walker said. “The offensive line wasn’t doing a bad job protecting, but we just had a few miscues on the blitzes they brought to us.”
The offensive struggles have not fallen solely on the Walker, however, as the offensive line allowed three sacks and several hurried throws. With inconsistency across the offensive front, the group has struggled to develop familiarity.
“[The offensive line play] was up and down,” redshirt-junior tackle Eric Lofton said. “We had some plays where a guy didn’t touch the running back or quarterback for 10 yards and other plays they’re being hit in the backfield. That’s a reflection on us, we’re inconsistent as an O-line, and we’ve got to fix it.”
“We just have to get tighter. We need more chemistry no matter who is in,” Lofton added. “We can’t keep playing like five fingers, we have to play as a fist.”
The Owls’ offense committed two turnovers and was forced to punt eight times in its 14 total drives in the game, managing three red-zone trips, all resulting in field-goal attempts.
Missing opportunities in the red zone, Walker tripped with 10 yards of open field ahead of him, and also attributed himself with missing opportunities to find senior receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick and freshman tight end Colin Thompson in the end zone.
Freshman kicker Austin Jones converted on two of the three attempts, resulting in the only two scoring drives for the Owls the entire game.
“I tripped on one of [the red zone attempts]. I should have walked in [for a touchdown],” Walker said. “I just overthrew Colin in the back of the end zone, and with Jalen I threw the ball behind him – I reacted to it really late. I just have to do a better job during practice.”
Rhule said he feels the lack of production has not been pinned to one particular issue, but many issues compounding off each other.
“Offensively, we’ve taken a step back and it bothers me,” Rhule said. “I wouldn’t put it at one thing to be quite honest, I don’t think we protected well enough. I don’t think we’ve run the football well enough, and I don’t think we’ve won against man coverage well enough. … I’d say it’s all those things, and when it’s all those things it falls on me.”
The Owls will face their final attempt to not only break a three-game losing skid, but also to seize bowl eligibility with a sixth win against Tulane (3-8, 2-5 American Athletic Conference).
EJ Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @ejsmitty17