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Gameday preview: Houston

Temple is looking to halt its four-game losing streak Saturday against No.17 Houston at Lincoln Financial Field. The Owls are coming off a 45-3 thumping at the hands of ECU, dropping their record to 3-6 overall and 1-4 in American Athletic Conference play.

Temple’s season is starting to spiral out of control. The Owls have lost their last four games by a combined score of 180-27 and have been outscored 334-161 overall this season, with more than half of their points coming against lowly opponents like Wagner and Akron.

To make matters worse, the Owls might be without starting quarterback D’Wan Mathis this week. He exited the ECU game in the second quarter after getting sacked and grabbing his left ankle.

If Mathis can’t play, true freshman Justin Lynch will make his third start of the season and ninth game appearance. Head coach Rod Carey said on Monday the team would prepare Lynch like he was starting.

Unlike Temple, Houston is playing its best football of the season. The Cougars are undefeated in AAC play and have ripped off eight straight wins after dropping their season opener to Texas Tech.

Here is how Temple matches up with Houston in all three phases of the game:

WHEN TEMPLE IS ON OFFENSE

The Owls offense has been abysmally bad for a good chunk of the season, but things are only getting worse as the games go on.

Temple currently ranks near the bottom of the AAC in points per game, yards per game, rushing yards per game and passing yards per game. There is nothing the Owls do well on offense.

This week isn’t going to get any easier, especially if Lynch is forced to start. He’s coming off a game where he completed 6 of 20 passes for 20 yards and zero touchdowns. On the season, Lynch has 512 yards and three touchdowns while completing just 57.83 percent of his passes.

Where Lynch might be able to give Temple a boost is in the running game. Despite being the backup quarterback, Lynch is second on the team in rushing with 210 total yards, and he’s added one touchdown.

Edward Saydee leads the team in rushing with 252 yards, and freshman Malik Cooper has impressed in limited opportunities by averaging 5.1 yards per carry on his limited attempts.

Houston has the best run defense in the AAC as they are allowing just 97.9 rushing yards per game. They are the only team in the conference allowing less than 100 rushing yards per game this season.

The team plays a penetration-style scheme focused on getting into the backfield early in reps, and it is paying off. They’ve accumulated 69 tackles for loss this season and have six different players with five or more tackles for loss.

Linebackers Donovan Mutin and Derek Parish headline the middle of the defense as they’ve recorded five and seven tackles for loss, respectively.

On the defensive line, Houston has three stalwarts in Logan Hall, D’Anthony Jones and David Anenih. They’ve recorded a combined 25.5 tackles for loss this season with Hall leading the way with 9.5.

As mentioned above, Temple’s quarterbacks have struggled this season, which has bled over to their receivers. Randle Jones and Jose Barbon lead the team in receiving with just 398 and 370 yards each.

Temple will be without Jadan Blue, who announced he was entering the transfer portal on Wednesday. Blue is the only Owls’ receiver to record more than 1,000 yards in a season but was struggling mightily this season.

The Cougars’ passing defense ranks fourth in the AAC and is allowing 201.4 yards per game this season. Damarion Williams is one of the team’s top corners. He’s recorded three tackles for loss, one interception and five pass breakups this season.

Cornerbacks Alex Hogan and Marcus Jones are tied for the team lead in interceptions with two each. Jones also has five pass breaks up while Hogan has four pass breakups.

Another area of concern for Temple this week is going to be dealing with Houston’s pass rush. The Owls started two backup offensive linemen against ECU in Wisdom Quarshie and Richard Rodriguez.

Temple’s line only gave up one sack against ECU, but they failed to open up gaps in the running game while Lynch and Mathis were under constant pressure.

The Cougars have recorded 33 sacks this season with Jones leading the way with five sacks and Hall is second on the team with four.

Houston’s defense has playmakers at all three levels, and Temple’s offense doesn’t have anything they can hang their hat on so expecting them to produce against the Cougars is probably a fool’s endeavor.

WHEN TEMPLE IS ON DEFENSE

Like the Owls’ offense, Temple’s has struggled during the team’s recent four-game losing streak. They still rank second in the AAC in passing defense as they are giving up 170.8 yards per game.

However, some cracks have started to show in the Owls’ secondary. They’ve given up eight passing touchdowns the past two weeks, including five to UCF quarterback Mikey Keene and three to ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers.

The three they gave up to Ahlers were especially concerning since all three of them were thrown to relatively wide-open receivers.

Temple got back starting safeties Amir Tyler and M.J. Griffin and starting cornerback Keyshawn Paul last week. Tyler and Griffin still rank first and second on the team in tackles this season.

Despite this, Griffin did not start against ECU, with freshman Corey Cuascut-Palmer getting the nod instead. Cuascut-Palmer recorded five tackles and one pass breakup last week.

Whoever ends up starting this week will not have their work cut out for them. Houston is averaging 272.6 passing yards per game, which ranks third in the AAC this season.

They are led by quarterback Clayton Tune, who has held a share of the team’s starting quarterback role since 2018. He earned the job outright the back half of the 2019 season and never gave it up.

He’s having one of the better years of his career this season as he’s completing 70 percent of his passes for 2,224 yards, 19 touchdowns and just six interceptions this season.

Tune’s top target is Nathaniel Dell, who ranks second in the AAC in receiving yards with 839, and he’s added eight touchdowns, which is tied for second in the conference.

On the flip side of Houston’s offense, they’ve struggled a little bit to run the ball this season. The average 135.7 rushing yards per game, which is just above Temple for the worst mark in the AAC.

Their leading rusher is Alton McCaskill with 603 yards and 12 touchdowns followed by Ta’Zhawn Henry, who has recorded 360 yards and three touchdowns this season.

Unfortunately for Temple, stopping the run isn’t something they are doing well this season. The Owls tote the worst rushing defense in the AAC as they are giving up 221.7 yards per game.

Despite struggling to stop the run this season, Temple has recorded 54 tackles for loss proving they are capable of making impact plays against the run. However, they struggle to tackle consistently and have a bad habit of giving up big plays.

Temple is getting good play out of linebacker William Kwenkeu. He’s got 6.5 tackles for loss, which leads the team. Fellow linebacker Jordan Magee is tied with BUBO Yvandy Rigby for second with 4.5 tackles for loss each.

Rigby is also fifth on the team in tackles and has recorded two sacks, two pass breakups and one forced fumble this season. However, Rigby was benched in favor of freshman Muheem McCargo against ECU.

McCargo recorded seven tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss last week adding to his season total of 22 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss this season. Given Carey’s positive comments about McCargo on Monday, it is expected he will start again today.

Temple’s defense is trending in the wrong direction, they seem to be pivoting to starting younger players despite strong play from the players they are replacing and this is the most explosive offense they’ve played this season. If it wasn’t obvious enough already, that is, likely, not a recipe for success.

WHEN TEMPLE IS ON SPECIAL TEAMS

If nothing else, the Owls looked to have steadied the ships on special teams this season but some of their old issues are starting to pop up again.

Punter Adam Barry’s average yards per punt has dropped to 42.69 yards and kicker Rory Bell missed two field goals last week sinking him to 8-of-13 on the season.

The Owls also gave up a long kickoff return to start the second half against ECU, which ultimately led to a touchdown drive.

In the return game, Amad Anderson is averaging just 8.20 yards per punt return and kick returner De’Von Fox is averaging 23.89 yards per return.

Houston’s punter is Laine Wilkins, who is averaging 44.8 yards per punt, and their kicker is Dalto Witherspoon, who has made 10-of-16 field-goal attempts this season.

The Cougars rely on Jones for their punt and kick returns, and he is one of the best returners in the conference while also being one of the conference’s most unique weapons.

He’s averaging 15.1 yards per punt return and has returned two punts for touchdowns this season while also averaging 40.7 yards per kick return and has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.

Besides his defensive and return prowess, Jones also sees reps at running back and wide receiver. If Temple continues to lose contain on kick coverage, Jones will make them pay with a touchdown.