Inside the venerable Liberty Bowl stadium Thursday night, two very strong defenses will take the field, but only one squad owns a quality offense.
That would be the homestanding Memphis Tigers, who are ranked second in the American Athletic Conference in both scoring offense and passing yards. This mere fact makes Temple’s defensive game plan all the more important; the Owls’ pass defense must have a big day in order for the visitors to pull off the upset.
The Temple defense is strong in several different areas, but its biggest strength is still the back end in the secondary. That’s rather amazing, considering the team had to replace three departed starters from its defensive backfield last year.
The Owls rank first in the AAC in pass defense. Temple has given up 156.6 passing yards per game, which is not only first in the AAC but 13th in the country.
The Owls’ ability to stop Memphis junior quarterback Riley Ferguson is the key to the game. Ferguson is coming off a rough week, having thrown no touchdowns and three interceptions last Saturday against Ole Miss, but despite those struggles, the Tigers still have the second-most potent passing attack in the AAC, averaging 308.5 yards per game.
Excluding last week’s game against the Rebels, Ferguson has completed 67 percent of his passes for an average of 9.26 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Stopping Ferguson is one thing, but forcing him to make mistakes as he did last week has to be another central objective for the Temple defense. The Owls have six picks this season, which is fourth in the conference.
Interestingly, sophomore strong safety Delvon Randall, the least experienced Owls starter in the secondary, leads the team with two interceptions. Fellow safety and junior Sean Chandler, who finished second on the team with four picks last season, is one of the best defensive backs in the conference. He has one interception this season, but Thursday would be a great time for him to pick up more. A big play from either Randall or Chandler would represent a likely gateway to a Temple victory.
The game within the game will be how Temple chooses to cover Memphis’s top receiver, junior Anthony Miller. He has 27 receptions for 405 yards and two touchdowns through four games. Although Ferguson struggled last Saturday versus Ole Miss, the Rebels couldn’t contain Miller, who went off for 10 catches and 132 yards.
Temple’s best overall defensive player is Chandler, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he gets the responsibility of shadowing Miller. Yes, Chandler is a safety, but he played cornerback his first few years with Temple. He’s very smart and versatile, so look for the Owls to use him in multiple roles Thursday.
Redshirt senior cornerback Nate Hairston could also be asked to cover Miller. Hairston’s emergence at corner has permitted the Owls to move their best weapon to free safety. With his ability to shut down the opponent’s top receiver, Chandler is free to roam as he pleases and make plays.
Temple ranks second to last in total offense in the AAC, while Memphis ranks fifth in total defense. The Temple defense will have to get off the field on third down and induce turnovers to make life easier on the offense.
It’s an uphill battle for Temple, but then again, the Owls shut down Paxton Lynch and a high-powered UM attack last year, keeping the Tigers out of the end zone.
Memphis has the firepower, but Temple head coach Matt Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow have demonstrated their X-and-O prowess against the Tigers.
Which side will win out on Thursday Night Football?