When the Temple Owls come to Happy Valley to play the Penn State Nittany Lions this Saturday, it will mark the 40th meeting between the two in-state rivals. I use the term "rival" loosely, because frankly it's not much of a rivalry. Penn State owns the series by a tally of 35-3-1. Temple's three wins came in the first four games of the series, with the last win coming in 1941 about a month and a half before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Joe Paterno was just 15 years old.
Penn State will be welcoming home wayward son Al Golden who is in his fifth year as coach of the Owls. His work in Philadelphia is almost as legendary as Benjamin Franklin.
As I'm sure you know by now, Golden played tight end for Penn State from 1987-1991. Golden scored a key touchdown in the upset of No. 1 ranked Notre Dame in 1990, and was later named team captain in 1991. His Penn State ties combined with his miraculous turnaround of a God-foresaken excuse for a football program has led many to believe that Golden has an excellent shot to be Penn State's next head coach after legendary coach Joe Paterno retires. When this speculation first started surfacing a few years ago people scoffed. Now, not so much. Golden's name has been mentioned in other recent head coaching vacancies like UCLA in 2007, Cincinnati, Tennessee, and USC in 2009. In each case Golden removed his name from consideration to stay at Temple. I guarantee you he's not doing it because he loves his commute every morning.
Golden's coaching staff also has a distinct Penn State flavor. Matt Rhule is a former Penn State linebacker (1994-1997) who serves as the Owls' offensive coordinator, and Mark D'Onofrio was a standout linebacker for the Nittany Lions (1988-1991) that now serves as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator under Golden. With three Penn Staters calling the shots, it's not hard to see how the Owls are competing for MAC championships and going to bowl games.
Last year Temple started the season with a crushing loss to Villanova, a FCS team. Looking to avenge that loss and claim the Mayor's Cup (presented by Dunkin Donuts), it looked like the Owls were doomed to fail again when the Wildcats took a 24-22 lead with just over two minutes to play in the game. But redshirt junior quarterback Chester Stewart orchestrated a 10-play drive to the Villanova 26-yard line where Temple kicked the winning field goal with just three seconds left on the clock. Villanova tried some lateral trickeration on their desparation kickoff, but defensive back Justin Gildea intercepted an illegal forward lateral and ran it into the endzone for the final 31-24 score. After the game,Al Golden was pretty excited.
"There are a lot of irrelevant games in college football this weekend. This is not one of them. This is going to be a meaningful game for years to come," Temple head coach Al Golden said.
Calm down there, coach.
Temple won another nail biter in week two with a 13-10 overtime win over MAC foe Central Michigan. Stewart finished 16-of-22 for 151 yards with a long pass of 56 yards to Rod Streater. Star running back Bernard Pierce left the game in the third quarter with a hand injury, but not before obtaining 57 yards on the day. The Owls held Central Michigan to just 43 yards rushing, but allowed 299 yards passing to the Chippewas.
Last week the Owls earned some poetic justice as they thrashed the Huskies of UConn, the team that replaced them in the Big East after the conference members elected to throw Temple out on the street. Pierce returned and rushed for 169 yards and three touchdowns in propelling Temple to the 30-16 win. Stewart was a ho-hum 11-of-21 for 159 yards and one TD.
There isn't much flashy about the Temple offense. They average only 314 yards and just under 25 points per game thus far. Stopping Bernard Pierce is the key. The talented sophomore rushed for 1361 yards and 16 TD last season, and this year he already has 301 yards and 3 TD. He's also a threat to catch out of the backfield with 3 receptions for 42 yards and a touchdown. Penn State will have their hands full keeping him contained, but the good news is if they can do it they can pretty much shut down the Owls.
Quarterback Chester Stewart has struggled with consistency and accuracy his entire career, though he has yet to throw an interception this year. His offensive line doesn't do a great job of protecting him as he has been sacked an average of three times per game. They are the strength of the offensive unit as most of the players return from last year.
The Temple defense is pretty average giving up nearly 350 yards and 17 points per game this season, but considering where they were just a few years ago, I'm sure Al Golden is thrilled to be average.
The defensive line returns a lot of experience with Muhammad Wilkerson and Adrian Robinson who combined for 20 sacks last season. But so far the pass rush has been disapppointing as the Owls only have four sacks on the year.
Like Penn State, Temple's linebacker situation is in flux as they are breaking in two new guys from a year ago. Elijah Joseph is the most experienced of the group and leads the team with 19 tackles so far.
The secondary was inexperienced and proved to be a weakness last year, but this year they are a seasoned group and deeper than they were a year ago even with the loss of Dominique Harris at safety. Marquise Liverpool and Maurice Jones are a solid pair of cornerbacks that should give Robert Bolden a good challenge.
There's no doubt that this is probably the best Temple team Penn State has faced in 30 years. Al Golden and Mark D'Onofrio have taught them how to execute and cut down on mistakes. They have greatly improved the image of the program, and this has led to rewards in recruiting better talent which has greatly improved the depth at each position.
But let's not kid ourselves here. Though the talent level is improved, it's still not up to Penn State's level. Their players aren't as big, and they aren't as fast. Unless Robert Bolden and the Penn State offense have a complete meltdown with turnovers that lead to easy points for Temple, the Nittany Lions should have no problem with this game.