When the Big East last saw Temple, it was a frail football program; a perpetual cellar dweller that finished 14-80 in conference games from 1991, until its unceremonious dismissal in 2004.
The Owls were not good enough for the Big East, but like a protagonist in a teenage comedy, went away for the summer and came back hot. Al Golden breathed life into the flatlining program, guiding it to nine wins in 2009 and its first bowl appearance since 1979. In fact, over the last three seasons, Temple’s 26 wins stack up favorably with the tops of FBS. Thanks to Golden and the continued work of new head coach Steve Addazio, suddenly Temple is an attractive date for the dance.
But how well will Temple fit in initially? The conference has changed since the Owls’ last foray there. Gone are Miami and West Virginia, and Virginia Tech departed before Temple’s final season. It’s definitely an entirely different landscape, and one more conducive to the Owls’ success.
Oddly enough, in the last three seasons Temple played just one Big East opponent. That was Connecticut in 2010, a game that Temple won 30-16 in Philadelphia. UConn would go on to win the Big East title, thus representing the conference in the January 2011 Fiesta Bowl. Not a bad indication for Temple’s prognosis, is it?
Bernard Pierce went off for 169 yards and two touchdowns in that game. Pierce would eviscerate another Randy Edsall-coached team a season later, scoring five touchdowns on Maryland to presumably become the Freddy Krueger of Edsall’s dreams. Pierce is gone for the NFL though, leaving a significant void in the offense that Addazio must patch if his team’s to compete for a return to the postseason.
Despite injuries throughout his tenure, Pierce was crucial to Temple’s fortunes. He scored 53 rushing touchdowns in three seasons, including a whopping 27 last season. That landed him among the finalists for SaturdayBlitz.com’s Ty Detmer Award, given to the top non-BCS conference player in the nation. None of Pierce’s potential replacements will be eligible for the award with Temple now calling a BCS league home, but it’s unlikely any will touch his output.
Matt Brown has logged significant field time and was an All-MAC selection last season at running back. He actually averaged more yards per carry than Pierce last season (5.9 to 5.4), scored six touchdowns and threatened 1,000 yards. However, Brown is a consummate third down back at all of 5-foot-5, 170 pounds. Taking the beating required of a featured back likely isn’t in the cards for Brown, who fulfills numerous roles for Addazio in doubling as a returner.
That means Kenneth Harper will get plenty of opportunities to step in where Pierce left off. As a true freshman, Harper scored a touchdown and saw 33 carries. He’s 6-foot and around 220 pounds, close to Pierce in size. Harper will get a chance to feel out his role with Temple featuring the best quarterback play it has in some time. Chris Coyer got the call as Owl starter late last season and brought an element to the offense previously lacking. Coyer rushed for three touchdowns and 562 yards, picking up over 8 yards per carry.
His run game supplemented what was the best passing attack among the three QBs to line up behind center last season. Coyer scored six touchdowns and threw no picks. Interceptions had been problematic for both Chester Stewart and Mike Gerardi in the seasons previous, and while they were cut down in Addazio’s debut, neither was proficient racking up scores. Coyer instills Addazio’s face in the pass.
The big question is how the defense holds up coming off a season when the only two units better played for the BCS championship. Temple held opponents below 14 points per game, but loses ball hawking linebacker Stephen Johnson and ball pressuring leaders Adrian Robinson and Tahir Whitehead. Ahkeem Smith becomes more vital to the Owl defense.
The nation gets its first look at how Temple fits in the new Big East on Oct. 6 when the Owls host USF.