Temple’s front seven was responsible for a tipping point that pushed the Owls to their first win of the season.
Layton Jordan lined up wide outside on second-and-long using a swim move toward the interior that left Akron offensive lineman Xavior Gray in his tracks. The sophomore swallowed up Zips starting quarterback Kato Nelson from his blind side and forced a fumble.
As the ball jarred loose, linebacker William Kwenkeu charged downhill, scooped it up after a couple of bobbles and ran 38 yards into the end zone. With just over five minutes remaining in the first half Saturday, that cut Temple’s deficit to just three after the Owls trailed by 14-0 in the first quarter.
“As I was running towards him, I saw the ball pop out so I tried to grab it,” Kwenkeu said. “I thought I had it, then I didn’t for a second so I had to regather myself. I had a good escort with MJ [Griffin] down the field getting a block for me. Everyone being there celebrating made me happy.”
Kwenkeu helped turn the tide, but Temple (1-1) has not opened either of its first two games on a defensive high note. Rather, it has taken the Owls a quarter or more to settle into and execute their game plan. With the Owls slated to host Boston College (2-0) this Saturday, that unit will need to limit early offense.
For Temple’s part, when the Owls executed against Akron the floodgates opened. After Kwenkeu’s score, a PAT, kickoff and two pre-snap penalties, Temple’s defense earned the Owls’ first lead of the season.
This time the game-changing play came courtesy of defensive end Manny Walker. The graduate student walked right into the backfield on an attempted screen pass that Zips second-string quarterback DJ Irons Jr. put just a touch too low. He corralled the ball out of the air and hop-stepped 7 yards into the end zone.
“I looked and he threw it my way so I just jumped up and the ball was in my hands,” Walker said of his first touchdown since playing receiver at Lake Marion High School in South Carolina. “Instincts, I guess.”
Temple got a lift from the defense that earned a lead and wouldn’t look back en route to a 45-24 road win.
“After the two initial scoring drives, I was very, very pleased with the defense and how they ran around,” coach Rod Carey said. “I think effort was the number one thing that changed. You don’t want to spot anybody 14, I can tell you that. We’re going to have to learn from that to get ourselves going earlier.”
Carey attributed the early deficit to an inability to “execute at a high level,” but Temple was able to dig out of that hole and take control of the contest.
Graduate linebacker George Reid was Temple’s leading tackler with 10 altogether, six of which were solo tackles. He was followed by Kwenkeu, who contributed seven tackles along with two sacks and three tackles for losses. He was also named the American Athletic Conference’s defensive player of the week.
This is the same group that gave up 61 points in a season-opening loss to Rutgers. Granted, a team from the Big 10 Conference isn’t fielding the same offense as an Akron team with one win in its last 25 contests, yet Saturday was a step in the right direction for Temple.
“I feel like we just communicated better against Akron,” Reid said. “Rutgers, we had the first-game jitters, we weren’t really all on the same page. We didn’t really connect as one. As the season progresses, you start to understand how guys play.”
The Owls now look ahead to facing Boston College in their home opener on Saturday. The Eagles offense bears closer resemblance to the Scarlet Knights than the Zips, nonetheless the Week 3 matchup will pose a challenge for Temple defensive coordinator Jeff Knowles’ unit.
Boston College is coming off a 45-28 win over UMass. It could be without a pivotal piece against Temple, though, as starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec might miss the remainder of the season with a hand injury. Jurkovec fell awkwardly on the first drive against the Minutemen and did not return.
Temple won’t get a break with Jurkovec on the mend. Between the junior quarterback and his backup, Dennis Grosel, the Eagles boast 13 touchdowns and 996 yards through two contests, good for the third-highest offensive production in the ACC.
It will be a difficult task for Temple to dig itself out of a hole if it falls behind early against BC. The key to the Owls’ success Saturday, and as they inch closer to conference play, will be striking first and leaving the slow starts behind.
“We’re continuously improving, that’s the biggest thing I would say,” Kwenkeu said. “Getting more film while trying to put the past in the past and move on to the next point.”