October 30, 2015

Rakes Report #31: The Gang Goes To An Owls Game (The Spooktacular Temple Preview)

Hey everyone, sorry for the delay. I tried to send this morning but for some reason linking back to NDMSPaint's site flagged the TinyLetter spam filters this time around. Halloween ghosts in the machine, apparently. Thanks for your patience.

Matt Rhule started his tenure as Temple head coach with a trip to South Bend for the 2013 opener. The Owls went 2-10 in his first year, clawed to 6-6 in his second and in year three have ascended to 7-0, reaching No. 21 in the polls and entering their first ranked vs. ranked match up in school history. Rhule, a former Penn State linebacker who worked his way through a variety of assistant gigs on both sides of the ball, has driven the renaissance with defense. There are going to be a ton of open jobs this offseason, and Rhule’s name will be in play for many of them.

Temple played well in that 2013 game despite only winning two games all season, trailing 21-6 at the half and not allowing the Irish to stretch it out past a 28-6 final, but that was a different Notre Dame offense. Tommy Rees was at quarterback (although he played well, going 16 of 23 for 346 yards, three scores and no picks). The running game was less imposing, as 25 carries went to Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson III. 2013 was a perfectly fine vintage of Brian Kelly offense, finishing 20th in the country in efficiency, but it lacked the explosiveness of the current unit.

This year’s Notre Dame team is sixth in offensive efficiency, a juggernaut capable of either grinding opponents to dust or burning them with big plays with equal aplomb. They’re going against a good Temple defense (8th in scoring defense, just 26th in efficiency), but this is going to be a whole other caliber of monster for the Owls to slay. Up until this point, Notre Dame has played the sixth toughest schedule in the nation, which corroborates the eye test if you watched what Clemson, USC, and Georgia Tech did during the Irish’s bye. By comparison’s sake, Temple’s opposing slate so far this season has been 111th.* This is going to be the football equivalent of jogging along at a gentle pace on the treadmill and suddenly having both the speed and incline maxed out and then also a wild animal is now chasing you.

* Thanks to FEI creator Brian Fremeau, good dude and Irish alum, for being kind enough to get me those scheduling split numbers. Notre Dame’s remaining schedule is 12th, if you were curious, so no rest for the weary.

The Owls’ weaknesses on defense also make them particularly susceptible to the Notre Dame attack. The Owls are 67th in preventing explosive plays and 99th in preventing explosive runs, versus the Irish offense ranking 13th and first in the same categories. It will take a minor miracle for Rhule to not see C.J. Prosise, DeShone Kizer or Josh Adams streaking down the field for a long score. Temple’s defense is also seventh in the nation at preventing opponents from finishing drives, which should be a fun test for an Irish offense still trying some new things in goal-to-go situations.

The Owls are good in both short yardage situations and getting to the quarterback, but I’m wary that all of their havoc rates are inflated by what they did to Penn State, sacking Christian Hackenberg ten times. They rank 11th in the nation in sacks, but 20 of their 23 total QB takedowns came in three games (Penn State, Tulane, East Carolina), resulting in one sack or fewer in their other four games. The Irish offensive line is going to be the best they’ve seen so far this season by a wide, wide margin.

There are playmakers DeShone Kizer will have to keep an eye on, starting with linebacker Tyler Matakevich. The senior is a one-man wrecking crew, having already collected four picks, four pass break-ups, four sacks and 49 tackles on the season. In front of him, defensive linemen Matt Ioannidis and Nate D. Smith have combined for ten sacks. Sophomore corner Sean Chandler has been the big play guy in the secondary, notching seven pass break-ups and two picks, so it will be him and/or senior Tavon Young given the assignment of stopping Philadelphia native Will Fuller in his homecoming game. Good luck to those young men.

If Notre Dame springs some big plays, will the Temple offense be able to catch up? Probably not, unless they dominate the turnover margin, something no opponent has been able to do to the Irish without the assistance of a monsoon. The Owls’ offense was ugly last year (117th in efficiency) meaning that despite an almost 50-spot jump in 2015, they’re still only at 82nd. Quarterback P.J. Walker has been solid (60% completion rate, 9 touchdowns, 3 picks, some contributions to the running game), but tailback Jahad Thomas will be the man carrying the heaviest load. Thomas already has 165 rushes this season (for comparison’s sake, Prosise has 131), averaging five yards per tote with a dozen scores. He’s also a factor in the passing game, with 18 receptions and another score. On the outside, senior Robby Anderson is the leading receiver, with 31 catches and a respectable 12.5 yards per catch average and five scores. (Again, for comparison’s sake, Fuller is at 32, 21.9, and eight in those categories.) The Owls had high hopes for a revamped receiving corps, but there just hasn't been much potency there so far this year.

I’m curious how Temple starts the game on offense. Will they stick to their usual plan, trusting their defense to keep it close so they can win late? (They’re big on being the better team at the end of games, as you can read in this summer profile from USA Today.) Or will they come out, embrace the role of underdog and attempt to exploit Notre Dame’s apparent susceptibility to trick plays? As big of an opportunity as this is for the Irish to notch a primetime win against a Top 25 team, this victory would immediately leap to the top of the Great Moments In Temple Football list. The stakes are just a hair bit higher than anticipated when this game was scheduled.

A few other notes collected over the week:

  • Notre Dame is a sterling 15-0 on Halloween. We ain't afraid of no ghosts.
  • Temple is 5-100-1 all time against AP-ranked teams.
  • Temple was trailing UMass in the final minute of their game. The Irish hung 62 on the Minutemen. The Transitive Property of College Football is not real, but this is still worth noting as the one common opponent to this point between the two teams.
  • Pitt lost at home to UNC last night, meaning they will not be ranked for next week's noon kickoff at Heinz Field. Damn you, Panthers.
  • This is an absolute awful week for football, so there will be a spotlight on this game come Saturday night. Rooting interests: Georgia over Florida, NC State over Clemson, Texas Tech over Oklahoma State are somewhat realistic, and if you want a few longer shots, Syracuse over Florida State, Oregon State over Utah and Maryland over Iowa would not hurt the cause.

I have been very confident going into two non-UMass games, Texas and Virginia. I was extremely correct in one of these predictions and really, really wrong in another, so I write the following with a clear memory of Matt Johns lobbing his way over, around and through the Irish secondary:

Temple is a tough, confident, sturdily capable football team with a good chance at double-digit wins and a conference title. There were Notre Dame teams that could lose this game because they simply weren’t tough enough. There were Notre Dame teams that could lose this game because the quarterback position was on tilt with an inability to limit turnovers. This is the best Notre Dame team in a couple decades, coming off a bye, playing in front of a crowd that will likely contain a majority of Irish fans despite this being the biggest college football game in Philadelphia in half a century. This might be close for a while, but it won’t be close at the end.

Go Irish, Beat Owls. Keep the momentum going.


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