After North Carolina coach Mack Brown and his players got their first looks at film of Temple, they were unanimous in their initial impressions of the Owls.
Or, more accurately, Temple TUFF — a philosophy that’s stuck with the program since Al Golden got the program to a bowl game in 2009 through the tenures of Steve Addazio, Matt Rhule, Geoff Collins, and now, first-year coach Rod Carey.
“They really are good at both lines of scrimmage,” Brown said. “That front seven on defense will take your head off.
“They are so physical up front; their front seven is really good, they’re older at linebacker … they’re really, really tough.”
Friday’s matchup with Carolina in the Military Bowl will mark Temple’s fifth straight bowl appearance, getting there by way of an 8-4 season that included wins over Georgia Tech, Maryland and Memphis before pushing Cincinnati to the limit on Nov. 23.
Get to know the Owls:
Remedy for Roche
Carolina’s first order of business on offense will be finding a way to keep Temple’s Quincy Roche out of the backfield.
Few have been able to stop the AAC’s Defensive Player of the Year this season as Roche, a 6-3, 235-pound defensive end, ranks sixth nationally with 13 sacks to go along with 18 tackles for loss (ninth nationally) and six passes batted down.
Roche is a natural athlete with uncommon speed who could very well transition to become a pure pass-rushing outside linebacker in the NFL.
“He’s a great pass-rusher — in fact, they’ve got two great pass-rushers,” Brown said. “They stop the run and get after the passer and that’s what you have to do to win the game.”
In addition to Roche, Ifeanyi Maijeh (6 ½ sacks) and Dana Levine (5 ½) have helped the Owls reach 13 nationally in sacks with a total of 39.
Red Zone Battle
That stout defensive front has materialized in the form of a red zone defense that ranks fourth nationally, having allowed opponents to score on only 65 percent of possessions.
For the Owls, that breaks down as giving up 23 touchdowns and five field goals once opponents reach their 20-yard line. Blocked kicks are also a strength, with a total of three on the season.
That physicality could prove key, as Carolina has struggled to turn red zone opportunities into touchdowns this season, ranking 94 nationally with 26 touchdowns on 48 trips.
“They’re big and strong up front,” Brown said. “And that has not been our best mindset with the goal line, especially with running.”
The Owls aren’t a great running team, but despite the lack of balance, quarterback Anthony Russo and center Matt Hennessy can get the offense in position to be successful.
“They know how to throw the football around,” linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. “They know how to beat Cover Three, Cover Four coverages, Cover Two — they have an answer for all of them.”
Russo, a second-year starter, has completed 58.6 percent of his attempts for 2,733 yards with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Receiver Jadan Blue has been his top target with 87 catches for 975 yards and four touchdowns, while the 6-5, 220-pound Branden Mack is the primary deep threat, catching 56 passes for 886 yards and seven touchdowns.
Regardless of what Temple is doing, expect Hennessy to make the right adjustments for an offensive line that has allowed just 18 sacks (22 nationally) this season.
“After watching film, I think he’s going to be one of the best we’ve faced all year,” Gemmel said.
- Don’t look for Temple to hit the big play, as the Owls rank 86 nationally in plays from scrimmage of 10 or more yards. Long runs have been a particular trouble spot, with just 48 on the season.
- Carolina hasn’t accomplished much in the return game this season, and don’t expect that to change on Friday as the Owls have excelled at covering kicks, allowing one kick return of more than 30 yards and punt return of more than 20 yards.
- Kicking is a strength, too, as Will Mobley has hit 11 of 13 field goal attempts this season, including both from 40+ yards.
- Punting, on the other hand, is an issue for the Owls, who rank 122 out of 130 teams, averaging 38.1 yards per attempt.
- The Owls have been prone to penalties, averaging seven per game for 61.3 yards.