Temple at South Florida
Thursday, 8 p.m. Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida.
TV/radio: ESPN/97.5 The Fanatic
Records: Temple, 5-3, 2-2 American Athletic Conference; USF, 4-4, 2-2.
Coaches: Temple, Rod Carey (5-3, 57-33 overall); USF, Charlie Strong (21-12, 74-49 overall)
Series: Temple leads 3-2.
Temple and South Florida are barely hanging on in the AAC East Division race. Both are 2-2 in the division, two games behind first-place Cincinnati. The loser will definitely be out of the race, mathematically or not.
So each should look at this as an elimination game. If Temple wins, it would also become bowl eligible.
Here are five things to watch in the game.
Holding onto the ball
Temple is playing one of the top ball-hawking teams in the nation. USF has 20 takeaways to rank second nationally. The Bulls have at least one takeaway in every game this year and 10 players have at least one. USF ranks third nationally with 11 fumbles recovered and 23rd in interceptions with nine. Temple has committed 15 turnovers, which is 107th nationally, so the Owls will have to do a much better job taking care of the ball.
Regaining their confidence
Temple was outscored, 108-42 in consecutive losses at SMU and against visiting Central Florida. The Owls insist they are confident as ever, but they said that after the 45-21 loss at SMU. The Owls have allowed a staggering 1,269 yards in total offense those two games. Getting some early defensive stops would do wonders for their confidence.
USF senior running back Jordan Cronkrite is an explosive player, but he got off to slow start with just 76 yards rushing in 33 carries over the first four games. In the last four games, he has rushed for 511 yards (6.8 avg.) and four touchdowns. The 5-foot-11, 202-pound Cronkrite is one of five USF backs who has gained at least 100 yards rushing this season. He is also a major home-run threat, with four of the longest 15 TD runs in school history.
Gardner stepping it up
With freshman running back Re’Mahn Davis, Temple’s leading rusher, out due to injury, more will be expected by redshirt senior Jager Gardner. This year Gardner has rushed for 405 yards (4.0 avg.) and five touchdowns. Gardner has been solid, but he needs to be more on the spectacular side. He has one 100-yard rushing game in his career and that came as a freshman in 2015. He has never had more than 18 carries in a single game, but that could be topped, especially since USF is 102nd in the nation in rushing defense, allowing 199.1 yards per game.
Looking for a big return
Last season Temple defeated USF 27-17 and the Owls went ahead for good on Isaiah Wright’s 73-yard punt return that gave them a 20-17 lead with 10 minutes and 5 seconds left. This season, teams have done a good job containing Wright. He is averaging 6.2 yards on 10 punt returns and 21.9 yards on 17 kickoff returns. Wright has 42 receptions for 411 yards and five scores, but Temple is so much more dangerous when he is making big plays on special teams.