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Temple at the bye: The Owls have turned things around

After losing their first two games, the Owls have gone 5-1 since and have a first place showdown in their next game, Nov. 1 at UCF.

Temple quarterback Anthony Russo throws the football against East Carolina on Saturday, October 6, 2018. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Temple quarterback Anthony Russo throws the football against East Carolina on Saturday, October 6, 2018. YONG KIM / Staff PhotographerRead moreYong Kim

A football season that looked headed off the cliff after opening with two losses has made a dramatic turnaround for Temple.

The Owls (5-3, 4-0 American Athletic Conference) head into their bye week not only one win away from being bowl eligible with four games remaining, but still in contention for a conference title.

Temple resumes play with a first-place showdown at No. 10 Central Florida (7-0, 4-0), Thursday, Nov. 1. (UCF also has a bye this week).

While Temple will be a decided underdog against a team that has won 20 straight games, the fact that the Owls are battling for a title after opening with losses to Villanova and Buffalo is remarkable.

Here is a look at Temple at the bye.

Biggest development. The switching of quarterbacks. When Frank Nutile was sidelined due to a knee injury before the third game against Maryland, redshirt sophomore Anthony Russo stepped in and never looked back. Temple won 35-14 at Maryland, a win that changed the season, stopping a downward spiral and giving the team a major jolt of confidence.

The Owls are 5-1 with Russo at quarterback. Although he has thrown 10 interceptions, compared to nine touchdown passes, Russo has proved to be a good leader who has the confidence of his teammates. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Archbishop Wood product has an extremely strong arm, can make all the throws, and has gained confidence each week.

Biggest improvement: The offensive line was outplayed by Villanova and Buffalo's defensive line in the first two games, but since then coach Chris Wiesehan's unit has been strong. The Owls have allowed just eight sacks all season. Redshirt sophomore center Matt Hennessy, fighting a publicity battle while competing for a non-Power Five school, should vie for All-American honors, that is how strong he has been. Freshman Adam Klein has started the last five games at right tackle and has shown continued improvement. Redshirt senior Jaelin Robinson has moved from right tackle to left tackle and provided great leadership. The guards, redshirt sophomore Vincent Picozzi and redshirt junior Jovahn Fair, have played well.

Temple schedule | Stats | AAC standings

The rest of the offense: The receivers have been deep as advertised but had too many dropped passes, although they have been better lately. Isaiah Wright and Branden Mack have led the group, while junior Randle Jones is coming on. Senior Ryquell Armstead has missed the last two games with an ankle injury, but he has been one of the better running backs in the AAC.

Strong defense: Defensive tackle Michael Dogbe has enjoyed his two best games in Temple's two most important wins, over Maryland and Cincinnati. He had 3.5 tackles for loss, including 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble against Maryland and 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble against Cincinnati. He is a quiet leader. Starting linebackers Shaun Bradley, Sam Franklin (who has also lined up at defensive end) and Chapelle Russell, along with key reserve Isaiah Graham Mobley, have been part of a difference-making unit. Senior cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, a transfer from Presbyterian College, has had such a big season that he has emerged clearly as Temple's top NFL prospect.

Since the opening two losses, the defense has been a difference-maker, with the exception of a 45-35 loss at Boston College, in a game that the Eagles did score 22 points off Temple turnovers.

Special, special teams: The special teams, under the guidance of Ed Foley, have scored five touchdowns – on a punt return, a fake punt that resulted in a 36-yard scoring pass, a blocked field goal, a blocked punt and a fumble recovery of a kickoff. In addition, a fumble recovery on a kickoff led to a touchdown against Cincinnati.

Biggest problem: Turnovers. Temple has committed 17, the second most in the AAC, with 14 interceptions and three fumbles. The Owls have a minus-2 turnover margin, usually a recipe for disaster. For the Owls to be competitive in their final four games, this is one area they need to improve.

What awaits. The Owls' 24-17 overtime win on Saturday over previously unbeaten Cincinnati, began the most difficult stretch in the schedule.

The next three games are at UCF and at Houston and home against South Florida, three teams with a combined 20-1 record. The regular season ends at UConn (1-6, 0-4).

A loss to Cincinnati would have left being bowl eligible challenging. Now with only one win needed, the path is clearer, but Temple's goals have changed. The Owls will travel to Orlando to face UCF playing with house money and if they play loose, but confidently, who knows? The fact that we are even suggesting the possibility of an upset shows how far this team has come.

Notes: UCF coach Josh Heupel says the status of quarterback McKenzie Milton is unknown for the Knights' next game, Nov. 1 against Temple. Milton had a streak of 27 consecutive starts snapped during Saturday's 37-10 win at East Carolina, the Knights' 20th consecutive win. Milton was sidelined due to injury, believed to be an ankle.

"I am not sure yet," Heupel said during Monday's AAC media call when asked about Milton's availability for Temple. "I haven't talked to our medical staff yet. It is too early to make that determination."

Milton, the reigning AAC offensive player of the year, has completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 1,797 yards, 16 touchdowns, and four interceptions.

Darriel Mack replaced Milton and rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown and completed 12 of 20 passes for 69 yards.

In another matter, Temple coach Geoff Collins, speaking on the same conference call, said he anticipates receiver and special-teams ace Freddie Johnson to make the trip to UCF. Johnson has missed the last three games. He had briefly quit the team and returned.