7:30 PM EST, ESPNU – Line: Memphis -7.5
The logjam for second place in the American Athletic Conference is about to dissolve tonight as the much-improved Memphis Tigers travel to Lincoln Financial Field to face the takeaway-happy Temple Owls on Friday Night Football. Memphis (5-3, 3-1 in AAC) comes into tonight’s contest winners of three of their past four games, winning their past two outings by a combine score of 88-30. Last Friday against Tulsa, Justin Fuente’s charges were dominant, drubbing the Golden Hurricane in a 40-20 debacle. Though the teams combined for a whopping 837 yards, it was the Tigers who held a decisive advantage on the ground, rushing for 243 yards and four touchdowns on 41 carries, while relegating the opposition to just 62 yards on 34 carries. After falling behind 14-3 midway through the Second Quarter, the hosts outscored the visitors 37-6 the rest of the way on the strength of Tailback Brandon Hayes and Quarterback Paxton Lynch, who accounted for virtually the entire rushing total. Hayes was outstanding last Friday Night, rushing for 197 yards and three scores on 28 carries, while Lynch completed 18-of-31 attempts (58.1%) for 183 yards through the air with another 47 yards and a score on six carries on the ground. Defensively, Fuente’s outfit forced Tulsa to be one-dimensional, which played right into his defense’s hands, as they held their Dane Evans to a mere 28-of-54 passing (51.9%) for 349 yards and two touchdowns. Memphis will be looking to avenge last year’s embarrassing 41-21 loss at home to Temple, in which they were shredded for 534 total yards in the penultimate weekend of the Regular Season.
In his third year at Memphis, Fuente has the program on the precipice of Bowl Eligibility for the first time since 2008. The evolution that his team has undergone over the past six months is rather remarkable, for the Tigers have shown significant improvement on both sides of the ball and are now a top-25 team on both offense and defense. Offensively, they’re as balanced as any team in the nation, averaging 448.0 yards per game, with 242.0 of that total coming through the air and another 206.0 yards coming on the ground. Lynch has been an effective dual-threat at Quarterback, completing 64.0% of his passes for 1,891 yards (7.3 yards/attempt), ten touchdowns and six interceptions, with another 174 yards and seven more scores courtesy of his legs. Standing 6-7 and weighing in at 230 lbs, Lynch is a load to bring down in the open field, but is slowly learning the nuances of playing the position from the pocket. Fuente, himself a former Quarterback at Oklahoma from 1996-1997 has taken the youngster under his wing, and has seen his charge improve by leaps and bounds from 2013. And it’s not like the kid hasn’t been put through the ringer either; on the road against the likes of UCLA and Ole Miss, who were both ranked within the Top-10 at the time, Lynch was night and day, completing an impressive 27-of-41 (65.9%) for 305 yards and a score versus the Bruins, while falling apart against the Rebels’ staunch defense mustering a scant 81 yards on 13-for-31 passing (41.9%). Fortunately, he’s had a strong rushing attack to lean on; the Tigers have averaged 47.5 carries per game, with the aforementioned Hayes leading the team with 529 yards on a healthy 5.8 yards per carry and five touchdowns. The second-year Senior struggled to find consistency through the first five games of the campaign, averaging only 46.2 yards per game, but over the last two outings has rushed for 149.0 yards thanks in large part to an increase in carries. Against SMU and Tulsa, Hayes has carried the ball a total of 41 times, compared to the 50 times he toted the rock in the first five contests. Fuente has been looking for a feature Tailback all season, and with Sam Craft (307 yards) likely to miss tonight’s tilt with a broken collarbone, Hayes should see the bulk of the carries against a very opportunistic Owls’ defense.
And speaking of defense, for the second consecutive season Memphis has been solid on that side of the ball allowing just 19.4 points (15th overall) on 350.6 total yards, including 224.6 yards versus the pass and another 126.0 yards versus the rush. Benefiting from the improvement of their teammates on the opposite side of the ball, the Tigers have allowed 400 or more yards on just three occasions this season. They’ve been particularly strong in conference play, where they’ve relegated the competition to 342.0 yards per game, with opposing Quarterbacks completing just 49.3% of their passes. This has been a big play unit that has produced a wealth of sacks and takeaways, with seventeen apiece. Defensive End Ricky Hunter and Linebacker Genard Avery have accounted for seven of those sacks, while Senior Defensive Back Bobby McCain leads the team with three interceptions to go along with 24 tackles. Coming into last Friday’s meeting with Tulsa, Fuente’s defense had forced at least two turnovers in all but one game this season, including four in the 24-3 loss at Mississippi. This group will be hellbent on redeeming themselves after Temple torched them last season, in which the Owls posted 328 yards via the pass an another 206 via the rush.
Meanwhile, Temple (5-3, 3-2 in AAC) mirrors their counterpart tonight in many ways, as Matt Rhule too has turned the program around in short order, with Bowl Eligibility within grasp for the first time since 2011. The Owls were a dreadful 2-10 a year ago, and have already surpassed that total with an eye on a potential nine-win campaign, which would match the most successful term in 35 years. After dropping consecutive games at Houston (31-10) and Central Florida (34-14), they earned their biggest win of the season last weekend in a a surprising 20-10 victory over then twenty-third-ranked East Carolina, handing the Pirates their first loss in conference play. In a truly ugly game in which the Owls had no business winning on paper, Rhule’s charges found a way as they managed to force five turnovers to overcome an absolutely dreadful offensive display. Over the course of forty-eight minutes, the hosts were outgained by a whopping 297 yards, including 150 on the ground, all the while mustering a mere 135 yards of total offense. Last Saturday’s anomaly marked the largest margin in terms of yardage by a losing team since 2009, and was the second-largest margin over the last ten years. In fact, Temple averaged a scant 2.4 yards per play. However, it was just one of those days where every break fell their way; the Owls opened the contest with a Tavon Young 63-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the First Quarter, ending four of the visitors first seven drives by forcing and recovering a fumble. The victory was Temple’s first over an AP-ranked team since 1998, and just their fifth in school history. Somewhere Bill Cosby is smiling…
Defensively, there are few teams in the country that have proven more opportunistic than Temple. On the season, Rhule’s defense has forced a a ridiculous twenty-four turnovers, with a staggering sixteen of that total representing fumble recoveries. Talk about being in the right place at the right time, the Owls have recovered at least two fumbles in half of their outings this year, including four in the opener at Vanderbilt and five last weekend against East Carolina. And it’s a damn good thing that these guys have produced so many takeaways, for if they hadn’t there is a very good chance that they’d be on the fast track to a second consecutive 2-10 campaign. Why the sudden pessimism, you ask? Temple has allowed an average 371.3 yards on 5.0 yards per play, but has been able to limit the opposition to just 18.4 points per game (10th overall) on the strength of all those turnovers. And they’ve been burned on a regular basis in conference play; against the rest of the AAC, this team has been gashed for 416.4 yards, including at least 432 in each of their past four outings. In fact, the prime reason they were outscored 65-24 in the two losses to the Cougars and Golden Knights was because they were minus-four in turnover differential. Rhule has seen this unit generate a fair amount of pressure with fifteen sacks, helping to lead to the wealth of takeaways. Junior Defensive Matt Ioannidis leads the defense with four sacks, while the aforementioned Young has registered a team-high three interceptions, one of which was returned for a score.
However, the benefactor from the all those takeaways, which has been downright terrible this season. Through eight games, the Owls are averaging 29.4 points (67th overall) on a dismal 317.6 points, with 203.8 yards coming via the pass and another 133.9 via the rush. In fact, with the defense scoring four touchdowns themselves, along with a Punt Return from Khalif Herbin, Rhule’s offense has accounted for just 25.0 points per contest. And unfortunately, they’re trending downward now that they’re deep into conference play; over the last five outings, Temple has averaged only 288.6 yards of offense, including 158.5 over the last two games. The passing game has been very disappointing, with P.J. Walker serving as the face of an underachieving unit; as a Freshman in 2013, Walker completed 60.8% of his attempts for 2,084 yards (8.3 yards/attempt), twenty touchdowns and eight interceptions, while rushing for 332 yards and three more scores in nine appearances, but has since regressed as a Sophomore, completing 56.7% of his passes for 1,539 yards (6.7 yards/attempt), eleven touchdowns and nine interceptions. He has struggled mightily over the last four contests, completing 46.7% of his attempts for an average of 7.0 yards per pass, with four touchdowns to six interceptions. With that said, Walker had arguably the best game of his young career against Memphis last season, going 20-for-32 (62.5%), for a career-high 328 yards and four touchdowns, while racking up another 59 yards on the ground.