The Temple Football Owls to tango with ninth-ranked UCF

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

The Temple Football Owls travel to Orlando for a battle with the ninth-ranked Knights of UCF on Thursday night with first place in the AAC East on the line.

This evening, kids will flock the streets across the Philadelphia region cloaked in various disguises and alternate personas in hopes of filling their plastic pumpkin buckets full of sugar-laden, chocolatey goodness.

On Temple’s campus, students will dress to impress, from the overkill of generic cat getups to intricate, handcrafted Gritty costumes more terrifying than a stare down with Michael Myers in an all-too-realistic dream after watching the latest incarnation of the Halloween classic.

Some 14 hours down I-95, the Temple Owls football team will celebrate All Hallow’s Eve one day later than the rest of the world. Thursday night at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando, the Owls face their toughest opponent to date.

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To label the ninth-ranked Knights of UCF “spooky” would be a colossal understatement and most would rather spend a night alone at the Eastern State Penitentiary than take the field against a team riding a 21 game win streak.  But the Owls aren’t most people.

Riding a three-game winning streak of their own capped by an upset of 20th ranked Cincinnati at home, Thursday night’s competition in Central Florida is the second in a brutal four-game stretch for the Owls.

Redshirt Sophomore quarterback Anthony Russo carried the brunt of the workload in that 24-17 overtime thriller at the Linc with Ryquell Armstead out due to injury. Armstead, the 6th leading rusher in the AAC (4th among running backs) utilized the week off to rest his ankle which held him out of the last two competitions. He is listed as day-to-day and is likely to be a game-time decision on Thursday night.

Russo performed admirably late in the fourth quarter and overtime of that homecoming battle, the crucial moments, which is precisely what you want to see out of your young quarterback.

But he struggled mightily through the first three-quarters and currently leads the AAC in interceptions with 10.

If you read my work, you know my take. We need to be patient with Russo as he experiences his growing pains. That could be the most challenging task since watching Chip Kelly slowly but surely demolish a promising core of the Eagles in his power happy run as “Chip the GM.”

Russo’s 10 interceptions leads the AAC, not a category you want to sit atop of. Last week’s game was the textbook example of these growing pains. I mean, you’re on top of the world with a 10-0 lead and an early, confident quarterback tossing a touchdown to get you there.

Then he throws three picks including a crucial turnover in the red zone and before you can question whether he’s really the future of the program, he tosses two astonishingly clutch touchdowns to take down a ranked opponent.

This kind of inconsistency will drive you insane, especially with your senior back sidelined and unable to ease the pressure off of a young quarterback. Luckily, the Owls defense has stepped up and showed the nation what it means to be “Temple Tuff.”

The Owls’ D has been clutch in keeping opposing offenses off the field. They are second in the nation with 45 three-and-outs forced, six of them coming at crucial times in the game against Cincinnati. They also contain their opponents to minimal gains, allowing just over four yards per play and 330 yards per game, ranked fourth and second in the conference respectively. Most impressive is that they’ve only allowed 2.68 percent of plays against them to go for 20-plus yards, leading the nation in that category.

Temple is going to need their defense to give their best performance come Thursday night. The UCF offense is explosive, to say the least, averaging over 500 yards per game, which ranks second in the conference. The offense, led by junior quarterback McKenzie Milton, is equally dangerous on the ground as it is through the air. They average 276 yards through the air and 261 on the ground.

Milton is the poster boy for this multifaceted approach. He has 16 passing touchdowns and boasts a 157 quarterback rating, and is also second on the team with six rushing touchdowns on 204 yards. The junior quarterback sat out their last game against ECU, so he is sure to be at full strength and ready to test the Owls.

Milton spreads the wealth among his receivers, with six different players in triple figures for receiving yards on the season. Be on the lookout for Tre Nixon, a redshirt sophomore transfer from Ole Miss, who has five touchdowns to go along with 27 receptions and 364 yards. Gabriel Davis and tight end Michael Colubiale round out Milton’s primary targets on the aerial attack in Orlando.

The Knights play-action approach is near deadly thanks to junior running back Adrian Killins, who comes into the game with 91 carries for 429 yards and four touchdowns. Killins is a smaller back, but his speed and elusive moves make him a difficult target to capture in the open field. Once again, the wealth is spread wide in the backfield, with six players including Killins and Milton with 100 or more rushing yards on the season.

The biggest concern for the Temple defense is if they will be able to handle the play-action look that the Knights present with Milton handing the ball to Killins or pulling it out and either taking it on his own or darting a perfect ball to his receivers. Milton’s arm strength is not to be questioned, and his finesse is like that of a surgeon in the first hour of open heart surgery, precise.

The key for Temple in this matchup is to contain Milton and for Russo to have more brilliant plays than destructive. We know he is going to turn the ball over. We know he is going to make a few questionable throws. Aside from an aggressive pass rush, the Knights secondary is not talented enough to completely shut down the Owls offense. No defense has been thus far in the season.

The fate of the Temple Owls’ season lies in the hands (or on the ankle) of Ryquell Armstead. In years to come, Russo will be able to single-handedly eat alive a high-level defense such as UCF’s. But at this point in his career, the young quarterback hasn’t proven that he can eliminate crucial mistakes that could cost the team going into a top-10 environment in Orlando. Armstead’s bruiser mentality would be enough to force UCF’s defensive backs to creep up and respect the ground game.

With Armstead, this game is a toss-up, a three-point contest likely to be won in the last seconds on a field goal (most likely from UCF considering Temple’s nonexistent kicking game). Should Armstead be held out yet another game, UCF will prove too much for Russo and the Owls to handle.

Next. The Temple Owls claws back to beat nationally ranked Cincinnati. dark

Armstead is a senior in his last hurrah, and he understands the magnitude of this game. I think he’ll fight through any remaining pain, suit up and make an immediate game-changing impact this Thursday night. Temple will continue to shock the world and make national headlines, winning this one 24-21.