Temple defense improving after rough start

Temple Notre Dame Football
Notre Dame running back Tony Jones Jr. (34) carries the ball over Temple linebacker Shaun Bradley during the second half Sept. 2 in South Bend, Ind.

Temple’s defense has gotten progressively better since it allowed 606 yards in a season-opening 49-16 loss at Notre Dame.

Sure, there was a blip — the Owls allowed 408 yards in a 43-7 loss at South Florida on Sept. 21. But it didn’t help that Temple committed six turnovers in that game, constantly giving the Bulls good field position. USF and Notre Dame, however, are the two teams  Temple has played that are nationally ranked. And while the Owls defense isn’t approaching the level of last year’s, which allowed 18.4 points per game, this young unit is making strides.

In  a 34-10 win Saturday at East Carolina, Temple held the Pirates to more than 14 points less than their average entering the game, and just 34 yards rushing.

Next, Temple (3-3, 1-2 American Athletic Conference) will face another team with a suspect defense but weapons on offense when it hosts Connecticut (1-4, 0-3) at noon Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.

UConn, coming off a 70-31 home loss to Memphis, is averaging 28.4 points, which is only eighth in the AAC but looks impressive compared with Temple. The Owls are last, averaging 19.2.

While it helps that the Owls haven’t faced the likes of Notre Dame and USF the last few weeks, the improvement on defense is still noticeable.

In the last few weeks, the Owls have been using five defensive backs and two linebackers to start. The play of the young linebacking corps has been a major difference. Last week, six linebackers saw action: three redshirt sophomores, two true sophomores, and a redshirt freshman.

“A lot of things we do there are a lot of blitz checks and stunt checks, and early in the season, we had a lot of young linebackers, young kids in general in a tempo environment, [who] aren’t able to get those little things done and you misfit some runs and have big plays happen to us like we did at Notre Dame,” said Owls coach Geoff Collins, whose team is allowing 26 points per game. “They settled down, gotten better, gotten more confident.”

Linebacker Shaun Bradley, a sophomore from South Jersey’s Rancocas Valley High, is emerging as a defensive leader. Temple had three experienced senior linebackers last season, and Bradley feels the benefits from having played six games.

“At Notre Dame, I was playing like a chicken with my head cut off and was running around out there,” Bradley said, laughing. “Now I am starting to see more things.”

Bradley and redshirt sophomore Chapelle Russell have been the starters. Russell’s strong return from ACL surgery has been a big development. What also has helped is that Collins has  rotated defensive linemen. Eleven saw action last week, led by end Jacob Martin, who had two sacks. On a hot, muggy  day Saturday in Greenville, N.C., that depth paid off.

The secondary, led by safeties Delvon Randall and Sean Chandler, has remained a strength.

Whether Temple’s defense has totally turned the corner remains to be seen, but the unit is trending upward as the Owls begin the second half of the regular season.

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