clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Five Factors Preview: Temple

New, 24 comments

Just how good is the Owls defense, and what are the keys to avoiding a Halloween nightmare for the Irish?

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday's game is a fantastic and unexpected opportunity for Notre Dame. Before the season when we talked about the team's chances as a playoff contender, there was a lot of debate over the schedule and if Notre Dame had enough quality opponents to impress the committee if they had one loss. And the best bets looked bad early - the blowout win over Texas quickly looked like it taught us more about the Longhorns than the Irish, Georgia Tech went from ranked to looking at a steep uphill climb to reach .500, and USC quickly changed from title contender to Pac-12 spoiler (for now, although they have an outside shot at the south division still).

Temple looked like a strong contender for the AAC title, but I don't think anyone predicting that Gameday would be coming to Philly for Halloween for a nationally televised game. This is now a rare opportunity for a statement win - but how good are the Owls, really? And how do they match up against the Irish?

Temple is a good but unbalanced team

The Owls are a good and dangerous football team - FEI ranks them #38 (ahead of Wisconsin and Georgia), and S&P+ has them just a fraction behind Michigan State at #28 in the nation. This isn't entirely unexpected - Temple made a big leap last year from 2-10 to 6-6 on the strength of a top-40 defense, and returned almost every starter on both sides of the ball (and the vast majority of its two-deep).

The Owls have been again led by their defense, which has taken another step forward this year. They profile pretty similarly to some other P5 programs that have struggled to score but found some success with one very good unit (Northwestern, Washington, Wisconsin). The offense has also taken a step forward, but it's been from dreadful (104th in S&P+ in 2014) to well below average (currently 85th). For Temple, so far it doesn't matter, 7-0.

While Temple received a lot of justified praise for their hot start with wins over Penn State and Cincinnati, it's worth noting that the advanced stats don't have a lot of respect for either bigger-name program- using combined F+ ratings they're  50th and 66th, respectively. The schedule has been kind to the Owls, but how do they match up with Notre Dame?

On Offense

With the ball, Temple's been relatively run-heavy - with a very solid defense and many leads, a conservative approach has made sense. It hasn't gone very well though, as Temple ranks 98th in Rushing S&P+, and hasn't been efficient or explosive (although Notre Dame's defense has been charitable and could decide to help there). Looking at non-opponent adjusted numbers for the Owls' offensive line, it's not pretty - 88th in adjusted line yards, 109th in opportunity rate, 80th in power success rate, and 126th in stuff rate. When your runners are getting stopped for no gain or a loss on 28.8% of your runs its bad times, and defensively the Irish front has been very solid clogging opponents' running lanes.

Passing has gone only slightly better: 71st in passing offense, 77th in passing efficiency, 60th in passing explosiveness. Owls quarterback P.J. Walker is completing 60% of his passes and only averaging 6.4 yards per attempt, but has taken care of the football with just three interceptions to nine touchdowns. The offensive line has also been better in pass protection, giving up a low sack rate.

So with some tough times on offense, how is Temple averaging 32.3 points per game? Actually, mostly with a huge hand from its great defense, which has given the Owls the best average starting field position in the nation. Temple has shut down opponents and forced 15 turnovers, and the offense has been good enough at finishing scoring opportunities (48th) to make up for the overall lack of production.

On Defense

Big games often come down to who has the best individual unit (passing/rushing offense or defense), and if that advantage can be overcome, and against Notre Dame that means stopping the Irish ground game. Temple is 21st in Rushing Defense S&P+, allowing few successful runs and winning matchups with their defensive line.  The one area of potential weakness is one they share with Notre Dame - they've given up some big gainers, rankings 99th in limiting opponents' explosive runs.

Temple Rushing Defense

Avg.

Rk

Nat'l Avg.

Rushing S&P+

120.4

21

100.0

Rushing Success Rate

28.2%

5

42.0%

Rushing IsoPPP

1.18

99

1.08

Adj. Line Yards

121.9

12

100.0

Opportunity Rate

32.1%

16

39.0%

Power Success Rate

47.1%

8

67.2%

Stuff Rate

23.1%

31

19.5%

The Owls are just as good through the air, and haven't given up big plays over the top. They rank 27th in Passing Defense S&P+, 17th limiting opponents passing efficiency, and 25th limiting explosive passing plays. They have a strong overall havoc rate, led mostly by their active front seven, which features disruptive units on both the defensive line (10th) and in the linebacking corps (22nd).

These are all very solid numbers, but not, dare I say, ELITE. I do believe Temple is a top-30 defense, and without a doubt the second-best the Irish will have faced this season (behind Clemson). But a lot of traditional stats I'll bet you hear on ABC tomorrow night (or in other previews) aren't opponent adjusted ,and make the Owls defense sound a little more impenetrable than it is. The Owls are 10th in yards allowed per play, 6th in fewest opponent yards rushing per game, and 8th in opponent points per game. Their pass rush is 8th in the nation with 3.29 sacks per game.

But take a step back and let's look at the important context here - the offenses that Temple has faced:

Team

Offense S&P+ Rank

Rushing S&P+ Rank

Passing S&P+ Rank

Penn State

63

52

94

Cincinnati

46

76

29

UMass

66

57

53

Charlotte

127

106

125

Tulane

120

113

100

Central Florida

126

128

123

East Carolina

54

103

66

Notre Dame

6

1

13

That pass rush that at first glance is one of the best in the country? It's 85th in opponent adjusted sack rate, a result of playing the bad offenses you see above and the fact that opponents have gone extremely pass heavy against the Owls (8th most pass attempts per game against their defense). Lots of pass attempts + bad teams bad at protecting the quarterback = lots of sacks, and 10 of them came in the opener against Penn State. That should be impressive, but the Nittany Lions offensive line has been struggle city (struggle valley?) protecting Christian Hackenberg this season, ranking 120th in adjusted sack rate allowed, and doing things like this:

Now, let's be clear - my intention here is not to trash talk Temple's defense. I'm not walking into writing this (or any preview) looking for stats to support an argument that Notre Dame will win tomorrow, and you may remember big concerns raised prior to the match-ups against Georgia Tech, Clemson, and USC. But the purpose of these advanced stats is to bring more context and knowledge to traditional measures, and when you do that for Temple's defense, it makes their defense look much less scary. Would it surprise me at all if they raise their level of play to better competition? Absolutely not.

But the Irish will be by far the toughest offense the Owls have faced, and it could be a jarring transition from facing four teams with some of the worst rushing offenses in the country to one that might be the very best. Notre Dame's passing offense is also the best Temple has seen, so there's no easy solution there for Matt Rhule. While Temple's opponent adjusted defensive numbers are still strong, they aren't quite as impressive, and their SOS brings up an interesting question - is it more meaningful for defenses to dominate bad offenses, making them even worse than usual, or limit good or great offenses to less than their usual output? Both could be true of this Temple team, but Saturday is the first time we'll really find out.

Temple: Trick or Treat?

If you can't tell already, I like this matchup a lot for Notre Dame. Still, this is not an Irish program that has excelled on the road in limited opportunities in the Brian Kelly era, and this Temple team should come out plenty motivated and prepared by an excellent coach in the biggest game in recent school history.  Things to watch out for on Saturday:

  • Who wins early in the trenches: Given Temple's strength in the front seven, they'll likely see if they can hold their own early on against Notre Dame's excellent O-Line. If they get pushed around and need to devote more men to stopping the run, that will open up Will Fuller and company for play action and single coverage where the Irish receivers have an advantage.
  • Turnovers: The Owls are excellent at forcing turnovers and are tied for 5th nationally with 12 interceptions. If Notre Dame wins the turnover battle, I don't see them losing the game.
  • Clean Special Teams: Temple's offense has been able to capitalize on routinely excellent field position, and the Owls blocked two punts to seal the victory last week over ECU. This Temple offense shouldn't have much success if they need to drive 70-80 yards for touchdowns.
  • Limit explosions: At this point, if I was an opposing coach I'd have at least two trick plays up my sleeve for Brian Van Gorder's defense until Notre Dame proves they can be disciplined enough to sniff out fakes. The Irish absolutely cannot let allow long scoring plays against an opposing offense that has struggled to efficiently move the ball.