Less than two weeks after handing a ranked Cincinnati team its first loss of the season, Temple will try to duplicate that feat again in a contest that could ultimately decide the eastern division of the American Athletic Conference. The Owls (5-3, 4-0 AAC) will fly south for a Thursday night showdown to take on No. 9 UCF (7-0, 4-0), who comes in riding the nation’s longest winning streak at 20 games.
The Owls and Knights are tied atop the AAC East with identical 4-0 records, but things haven't been easy for either team in recent weeks. Temple has won three straight but was forced to rally in the second half in recent victories over Navy and Cincinnati. UCF found itself in a dogfight late against East Carolina its last time out before pulling away, 37-10. That followed a narrow 31-30 victory at Memphis.
Since the AAC went to a divisional format, the winner of this annual contest has gone on to represent the East in the conference title game. UCF got the better of Temple last season, 45-19. Temple escaped with a 26-25 win in its last trip to Orlando two years ago.
Temple at UCF
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: UCF -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Temple's pass rush
For the Owls to have any real shot to pull a road upset on Thursday night at Spectrum Stadium, they will need to get the UCF quarterback — presumably McKenzie Milton — out of his comfort zone. Led by defensive tackle Michael Dogbe’s six sacks, Temple is second in the AAC and 18th in the country with 24 total sacks. Defensive end Quincy Roche and linebacker Sam Franklin each have three sacks. Temple got to Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder three times in its last contest and held the Bearcat quarterback to just 14-for-33 passing for 114 yards and an interception.
Assuming he's able to go, Milton will likely be the most mobile quarterback that the Owls have faced all season. In seven games this season, UCF has allowed just nine sacks. The Knights start two juniors and two seniors along the offensive line. Defensively, the Owls start two seniors up front and two sophomores. Sharif Finch had the only two sacks for Temple in last season’s loss to UCF.
2. Quarterback play
Although his numbers have declined slightly since last season, Milton is still a force to be reckoned with behind center for UCF but his status for Thursday night remains up in the air. The junior and Hawaii native currently ranks in the top 20 nationally in passer rating and in the top 10 in yards per attempt but missed the most recent contest with East Carolina with an undisclosed injury. For the season, Milton has nearly 1,800 passing yards, more than 200 rushing and 22 total touchdowns. Over his last four games, Milton has accounted for 16 total touchdowns and just one interception. Milton finished with 231 total yards, five total touchdowns and no interceptions during last season’s 45-19 victory. If Milton is unable to go, Darriel Mack will likely get his second start.
Sophomore Anthony Russo has been far less reliable for Temple this season and will need to bring his A game on Thursday night. For the year, Russo has nine touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. Russo began the year on the bench but looked to be turning a corner after a monster game against East Carolina on Oct. 6. Turnovers have still been an issue in recent weeks, but he has thrown game-winning touchdowns in each of the last two games. His 25-yard strike to Isaiah Wright in overtime sealed the victory over Cincinnati two weeks ago and that was followed by a game-tying touchdown pass to Branden Mack in the final minute of regulation to force overtime. For the Owls to win on Thursday, Russo may again need to be clutch and likely turnover-free. The Knights have given up an average of 493 yards of offense over their last two games.
Tying into the last point is the critical role that turnovers will likely play in Thursday’s matchup. For UCF, that battle has been dominated this season while that has not been the case for Temple. For the season, the Knights rank fifth in the country with a plus-13 margin. For the Owls, that number is minus-two. In the three losses, Temple is minus-four. In the five wins, it is plus-two.
UCF was plus-five in last season’s win against Temple. This season, safety Richie Gant leads UCF with three interceptions in addition to two forced fumbles. Rashard Causey, a senior safety, leads the team with three forced fumbles. Dogbe has three forced fumbles for the Owls while Shaun Bradley and Rock Ya-Sin are tied for the team lead with a pair of picks. Temple does have four defensive touchdowns compared to two for UCF.
The health of McKenzie Milton will weigh heavily into what Temple’s upset chances actually are. The Owls have the defensive line that can make things difficult on the UCF offense. The problem for the Temple offense is that it hasn’t gotten much from the ground game and will be forced to rely on a turnover-prone pocket passer to try to move the offense. Having this one at home should also be a big advantage for UCF.
Prediction: UCF 38, Temple 21
(Top photo courtesy of @UCF_Football)