Temple football got off to a slow start in the post-Matt Rhule era.
First-year head coach Geoff Collins began his tenure with three wins and fives losses as he worked to get more out of an offense and defense that both featured a good amount of potential but weren’t exactly operating like well-oiled machines. The Owls looked like a squad that was trying to find its footing after consecutive 10-win seasons that saw Rhule depart for Baylor and nine players move on to the NFL.
Would Temple continue to build on the good things Rhule developed in North Philadelphia, or would they regress to the norm?
It feels like more of the former rather than the latter, and it started last November with a solid home win over a decent Navy program. Quarterback Frank Nutile, who took over for Logan Marchi one game prior, put in a fantastic four touchdown performance, going 22-30 with 289 passing yards on the day. The defense limited Navy’s patented rushing attack to 136 yards on 52 carries, and the 34-26 win put the Owls back on track to qualify for a third straight bowl game.
They went on to win two of their final three, knocking off Cincinatti and Tulsa on the road and going on to smother Butch Davis and his FIU Panthers 28-3 in the Gasparilla Bowl.
It really was a nice turnaround for a team that looked more than pedestrian in September and October, struggling to carve out an identity through the first half of the schedule.
Now the Owls are back on stable ground, and you’ve got a program coming into 2018 with plenty of positives:
- a second year head coach with experience under his belt
- a serviceable starting quarterback
- the return of running back Ryquell Armstead and wide receiver Isaiah Wright
- a first round NFL prospect in safety Delvon Randall, who might be the best defensive player in the AAC
- a navigable front-end schedule with winnable out-of-conference games
Nutile ended up playing about half of the 2017 season and put up 12 touchdowns and 7 interceptions with a 61.3 completion percentage. A look at his numbers, along with the top ball carriers and receivers:
On the other end of the spectrum, the question marks are fairly standard:
- can Nutile continue to build on what he did last year?
- how much is the defense affected by the loss of coordinator Taver Johnson and several starters in the secondary?
- who steps up to replace receivers Adonis Jennings and Keith Kirkwood, who went to the NFL?
- how much does the retirement of David Hood (concussions) affect the running game? can Armstead assume his workload? who steps up?
- does the kicking game improve from last year’s 19/28 (68%) field goal effort?
The foundation is there. Coach and quarterback are the two most important pieces to any football team and Temple fans should feel pretty comfortable with what they’ve got.
Here’s a look at who the Owls are facing this year:
It starts with two winnable home games followed by an interesting trip to Maryland, a program embroiled in scandal. Tulsa at home is a game the Owls should win, then you go to Boston College to take on the fighting Steve Addazios. 4-2 or even 5-1 is not out of the question in the first half of the season.
The back-end schedule is tough, however. Four of the last six are on the road, including difficult trips to UCF and Houston in consecutive weeks. I think the key is that Navy game and the finale in East Hartford, both of which will go a long way towards determining bowl eligibility. But the reality is that you have six winnable home games and holding serve at Lincoln Financial Field is good enough to get you back to the postseason.
Crossing Broad: 7 wins and 6 losses last year, kind of a slow start out of the gates, but this team really turned it on at the end of the season, won some games down the stretch and got a bowl win, too. What’s the outlook for this team in 2018?
Kyle Gauss: They’re still trying to ride the momentum. Like you said, they started off slow last year and they ended up making a quarterback switch, which initially was for injury. Logan Marchi goes down and Frank Nutile steps in. Once he got in there he kind of just took over that job. They ended up winning a lot of games down the stretch, they became bowl eligible and won the Gasparilla Bowl and they want to continue to maintain that.
The out of conference schedule is doable. They have two ‘power five’ games against Boston College and Maryland. Everybody knows the current situation with Maryland, so that might be a game that Temple can walk into feeling pretty good. I think it should be a better season than last year. If the team can get to 8 or 9 regular season wins, and maybe UCF takes a step back with (Shaquem) Griffin graduating – I think they’ll be in competition for a division title. They have won two of the last three divisions titles, so whether they add a third one, I don’t know. But it’s an optimistic outlook so far.
Crossing Broad: In reading some quotes from the players, it seems like they’re just more comfortable with Geoff Collins and the staff now. They know what’s expected of them and they’re familiar with the schemes and the process. How much can be said for continuity and Collins going into year two, now understanding what it takes to be a head coach?
Gauss: I think a lot of it has to do with that. I think he’d be the first person to tell you that he was learning as he went. There’s a lot of continuity with the offense. The offensive coordinator is still here. Dave Patenaude will be the first one to tell you that, in his system, that they start to make strides from year one to year two. When you look at his offenses at Georgetown and Coastal Carolina, it does lend credence to that. On defense, the team did lose their coordinator, (Taver Johnson), who went to Ohio State to become the defensive backs coach. But it’s been a Geoff Collins defense the whole time, so there’s continuity there just because he’s very hands-on with the defense. I think it adds a lot of familiarity on offense when, they pretty much went from a successful offense under Matt Rhule, to all of a sudden doing something completely different, and towards the end of the year they sort of went back to a traditional Temple offense, which is when they started putting up numbers. I think having Frank Nutile now with 6-7 career starts under his belt, and you have a running back who’s been a three-year starter, and you return a lot of talent at wide receiver – I think there will still be strides just because these guys have played a lot of football and are more comfortable at this point. There’s a lot of familiarity coming back.
Crossing Broad: Let me lump these two questions together – number one, with Nutile, what realistically can be expected of him? And with the offense, what’s the key there? You’ve got Ryquell Armstead coming back and Isaiah Wright looks like a key player as well. How does that unit move forward?
Gauss: Nutile is what he is; it’s unfair to call him a game manager because I think he’s more talented than that. He really understands the offense and doesn’t make many mental mistakes. He got a lot more comfortable as the season went along. I think there are still a lot of weapons on this team. Yeah, you graduated Keith Kirkwood, he and Adonis Jennings went to the NFL, but Wright can do a little bit of everything. Armstead, two years ago, had 14 rushing touchdowns. Ventell Bryant a few years ago looked like he’d be an NFL pick but had a bad junior year when he got lost in kind of the stew of a new team.
I think the key to the whole team might be their depth at running back. Armstead played every game last year but he was dinged up, maybe 50%, but if he’s able to give you 13 or 14 games of what he looked like as a sophomore, and if you can get guys like Jager Gardner, Tyliek Raynor, or Kyle Dobbins or Jeremy Jennings to kind of take some load off of him, I don’t think it’s every going to be a situation where they want to run the ball 50 times a game, but they do need to have that balance. I think the depth at running back is their biggest question mark, but it’s the key to the offense. At one point, after Logan Marchi lost his job at QB, they went from a 20 point per game team to a 32 point per game team. Even if they lose a couple of NFL guys at wide receiver, there are still enough pieces there for them to have a fair amount of success.
Crossing Broad: Geoff Collins obviously was a defensive coordinator for a long time. Even with Andrew Thacker coming in as DC this year and taking on Johnson’s gig, are we still looking at Collins guiding this defense, carving out a defensive identity first and going from there?
Gauss: Yeah, absolutely. I think it fits the profile. Collins was obviously a highly successful coordinator in the SEC for a good number of years. But it also fits the profile of Temple. You look back at the last ten years of Temple becoming a successful football program, and in the very beginning it was always based on defense. They had NFL guys like Muhammad Wilkerson and Jaiquawn Jarrett, who Eagles fans don’t want to hear about, but he was a highly successful college player. It’s always been based on defense and the offense always follows. I think the offense should be better this year but it’s first and foremost a defensive team. You have Delvon Randall at safety, who Sporting News projects as a first round draft pick. They bring back all of their starters at linebacker. They bring back two really good defensive tackles in Dan Archibong and Michael Dogbe. The real key with them is gonna be if they can they get pressure from the defensive ends. The defense is still going to be the identity but they have questions marks as well.
Randall is excellent. Here’s a good highlight film from last season, just mute the awful song choice:
Crossing Broad: You mentioned the road games at Maryland and BC. The UCF game is on the road in November and you’ve got 3 of the last 4 on the road, which includes Houston and UConn. What do you make of how the in-conference slate shakes down, in addition to those out of conference road trips?
Gauss: I still think with the American that there’s still the “haves” and “have nots,” even though they’re all kind of known as a Power 6 type of grouping. You start off with Villanova and they should beat Nova. Nova is a good FCS school but Temple’s talent level should make that a pretty easy win. Buffalo is a little harder than it looks on paper, but you’d think they win one of those. Maryland, Tulsa, Boston College, the beginning half of the season is actually kind of easy outside of maybe that trip to BC, with Temple’s old friend, Steve Addazio. If they can somehow get through that initial stretch and head out to the Navy game at 5-1, then I think they have a chance to weather the storm towards the end. They can definitely beat Navy. They’ve beaten Navy pretty regularly over the last couple of years. Cincinnati is down. It’s that UCF/Houston/USF stretch where, if they can win 2 of 3 or even 1 of those 3, then I think they’re definitely in the conversation for the conference title. They should beat Uconn again. If they get swept during that series, then it’s probably a season similar to last year, where they win 6-7 games, go to a bowl in Boca Raton, and maybe next year you take another jab at it. So that stretch is probably going to determine their entire outlook on the season, whether they’re hoisting a trophy as conference champion or if they’re just trying to build themselves up for a lesser bowl.
Crossing Broad: Last one; It really wasn’t long ago that Notre Dame was here, College Gameday was in town, this team was rocking and people were paying attention to college football in Philadelphia. Is that momentum still there, or did it leave with Matt Rhule? Can Temple reclaim some of that spark or are we just sort of back to having college ball play second-fiddle in a pro sports town?
Gauss: I think they had a little bit of lightning in a bottle that year. Things kind of worked out entirely in their favor. They beat Penn State to start the year. They start off 7-0 and they’re nationally ranked. They got the national game of the week against Notre Dame, and they should have beat Notre Dame if their walk-on safety didn’t take a bad route and allow a Will Fuller touchdown instead of intercepting the ball. That also coincided that week with the Eagles being on a bye, and people were kind of down on the Eagles that year and sort of waiting for Chip Kelly to get fired. Everything kind of built up to a point where people could rally around Temple. Do I think that’s the case right now, where they’re going to have two games of 70,000 people in the stands? No. Do I think there’s still some following in the city? Yeah, a lot more than 10 years ago. This will be my tenth season covering Temple, which is flabbergasting, and I vividly remember covering MAC games on Tuesdays with 3,200 people in the stands. Now they have a pretty loyal fan base. They’ll routinely get around 30,000 at games, which isn’t SEC, Big 12, Big 10 level, but it’s a solid football program.
You asked if I thought they lost momentum when Matt Rhule left. No, and I’m a big Matt Rhule guy, but I don’t think he was some irreplaceable coach. I think Geoff Collins has shown you can kind of maintain success with this program, assuming he has a good year or two and goes on to another program, that will be four straight coaches that were successful and went to BCS/Power 5 programs. I think there’s definitely a spot for Temple in the landscape of Philadelphia. I think they just to continue to do what they’re doing, which is recruit loyal guys, develop talent. They’ve put a bunch of guys into the NFL. As long as they keep doing that, (they’ll be good). There are entire generations of people that knew Temple as a commuter school and nobody cared about the football program. Now with 15,000 undergrads living on campus, they’re all there, they’re all coming down, it’s more ingrained in the culture. They get older and come back. I think Temple’s program is in a good spot, it’s just whether or not keep capitalizing on it. Right now, it seems like they’re on pace to do that.
Kyle Gauss is OwlScoop.com’s assistant editor.
I think things are looking up for the Owls. You’re coming back with a more experienced head coach and stability at the quarterback position. You’ve got skilled number ones at the running back and wide receiver position and enough defensive talent to compete in the AAC. Randall will go in the first or second round of the NFL draft.
The question for me is what kind of momentum Temple can build out of the gate. Kyle is right when he says that Temple team from a few years back captured attention right away with the home win against Penn State, which really did turn a lot of heads. Matt Rhule went and talked to every single media outlet in the city after that game and people certainly did focus on Temple football and paid attention to what was happening.
This season, they’re obviously going to be buried by the Eagles, Flyers, and Sixers in terms of market share (and maybe the Phillies if they turn it around), but a big win at Maryland or Boston College can go a long way toward turning some heads and earning back some of the lightning they bottled up back in 2015.
I think the first two games are pretty straightforward, but if they can beat at least one of those “BCS” teams on the road, then 8-4 or 9-3 is not out of the realm of possibility, depending on what happens with that USF home game. That’s the game that might end up determining second place in the American East, assuming that UCF continues to roll after the departure of head coach Scott Frost to Nebraska.
The worst case scenario would be another 6-6 campaign or 7-5 with a chance to get to 8-5 with a Frisco Bowl win over the MAC.
Still, it’s not unreasonable to think that this can squad can make a push for eight or nine wins and another postseason appearance.