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Temple's defense back to its old, fierce self

There were very few roadblocks for Temple's football team this season, but one cropped up during a two-game stretch when the defense imploded.

Temple linebacker Tyler Matakevich.
Temple linebacker Tyler Matakevich.Read more(Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff Photographer)

There were very few roadblocks for Temple's football team this season, but one cropped up during a two-game stretch when the defense imploded.

The Owls (10-2) are preparing for the American Athletic Conference championship Saturday at Houston (11-1). Temple earned the title game berth after bouncing back from a rough defensive stretch.

Temple suffered a physical pounding in a 24-20 loss to Notre Dame, when the Owls took a 20-17 lead with 4 minutes, 45 seconds left and stood toe-to-toe with the Fighting Irish.

The defensive leaks surfaced a week later in a 60-40 win at Southern Methodist. The Mustangs scored as many points in three quarters against Temple as Notre Dame did for the entire game.

Then came the crisis point of the season, a 44-23 pasting by South Florida in Tampa. Temple allowed 566 yards of offense.

When all-conference defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis was asked if he was afraid that things had a chance to fall apart at that point, he couldn't have been more blunt.

"Yes," he said.

Defensive coordinator Phil Snow held a meeting for his unit and pulled no punches in his analysis.

"He told us we ultimately became complacent," Ioannidis said. "We started riding off last year's success and he said he had been seeing it all year, but when you are playing well, you don't want to rock the boat."

Snow certainly had his team's attention. He mentioned to the Owls how they had missed 38 tackles in the USF loss, how too many players were freelancing and not playing within a team structure.

The biggest motivator was simply the tape. The defense was shown highlights of games from this season and last year in which the unit played in unison. The tapes showed one major difference from the SMU and USF debacles.

"We saw how fast we were playing and then saw [the USF tape] and we weren't playing that fast," said linebacker Tyler Matakevich, the AAC defensive player of the year. "It was a reality check and we had to get back to what got us here."

With its confidence on the brink of wavering, Temple had to face Memphis and 6-foot-7, 245-pound quarterback Paxton Lynch, a potential first-round NFL draft pick.

Before the game, Ioannidis made an honest admission when talking to Snow. "I said I was nervous about how we would play," Ioannidis said. "I wasn't embarrassed about it because when you are nervous about it, that means you aren't being complacent."

The nerves quickly dissipated.

The Owls stuffed the running game, took away the deep passes that Lynch likes to throw, and handed the Tigers a 31-12 loss, limiting an offense that was averaging 43.7 points per game to four harmless field goals.

Then came last week's 27-3 win over visiting Connecticut that clinched the East Division title and earned a berth in the inaugural championship game.

Temple limited the Huskies to 138 yards, including 9 on the ground.

Connecticut played without starting quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, who was injured the previous week in a 20-17 win over Houston. Shirreffs was hurt on the second drive, but the Huskies still were able to hand Houston its only loss of the season.

Temple's defense was flying against Connecticut. The freelancing that drew criticism was nowhere to be seen.

It took some self reflection and the ability to get back to basics to turn it around for the Owls. That sounds so simple, but nothing in such a complex game is ever easy.

"We had to get back to fundamental defense," Ioannidis said. "We hadn't been doing that, I guess, to the level we should have been."