Playing without starting quarterback Anthony Russo for the second consecutive game, and for the first time following the surprise transfer decision of leading rusher Re'Mahn Davis, the Temple Owls took an early 13-7 lead last week in an upset bid against SMU and trailed just 20-16 entering the fourth quarter. However, Temple's undermanned roster couldn't keep up with the Mustangs in the 47-23 loss, a third straight for the Owls, which fell to 1-4. There's good news this week with the expected return of Russo, but the competition is just as difficult with a trip to Orlando to face the UCF Knights on deck.
Though hopes of a New Year's Six bowl game are slim following midseason losses to Tulsa and Memphis, UCF beat Houston 44-21 last weekend to improve to 4-2 overall and 3-2 in American Athletic Conference play. A return to the AAC Championship Game also is a longshot, and while there's zero room for error, a win over Temple would keep hope alive with undefeated Cincinnati on the horizon.
Temple at UCF
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 14, at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: UCF -24
When Temple Has the Ball
Anthony Russo suffered a shoulder injury in the 41-29 loss to Memphis Oct. 24 – a game in which he completed 41 of 63 pass attempts for 387 yards and four touchdowns, along with three interceptions – and hasn't played since. He has completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 863 yards and nine TDs through the air and a team-high two on the ground, and despite six interceptions, would offer a huge boost to the Owls offense if he can make it back for the game this week. After all, should Russo be unable to go, Temple would be forced to turn to third-stringer Re-Al Mitchell following an injury to Russo's top replacement, Trad Beatty.
Mitchell, an Iowa State transfer, is talented and athletic, but is far less consistent as a passer (55.2 percent completion rate, 126 yards, TD, 4.3 yards per pass attempt). In fact, Mitchell ranks second on the current roster with 103 rushing yards now that Davis (308 yds., TD) is gone. The new top ball carrier is Tayvon Ruley, who ran 15 times for 66 yards and a touchdown against SMU and has 168 rushing yards on 36 attempts this year. Redshirt freshman Edward Saydee has moved up in the pecking order with all eight of his carries (and all 26 rushing yards) coming in the last two games.
With Davis out, the receiving trio of Jadan Blue, Branden Mack and Randle Jones is even more important. Blue caught 95 passes for 1,067 yards and four touchdowns last season, and leads the team with 36 receptions and five scores this year. His 300 receiving yards rank second to Jones, whose 31 catches, including two for touchdowns, have gone for 370. Mack has been on the receiving end of 21 passes for 254 yards and three TDs after posting more than 900 yards and a team-leading seven touchdowns in 2019.
When UCF Has the Ball
Dillon Gabriel was a freshman sensation for UCF in 2019, and there are no signs of a sophomore slump. Gabriel has completed 64.0 percent of his passes for 2,506 yards and 21 touchdowns (just one behind the quartet of FBS leaders) with just two interceptions in six games. His 417.7 passing yards per contest leads the nation by a wide margin (Nevada's Carson Strong ranks second with 393.7 in three games), and his 9.6 yards per pass attempt ranks No. 13 (and seventh among quarterbacks who have played at least five games). Gabriel has excelled despite losing top receiver Gabriel Davis to the NFL and Tre Nixon for all but one game because of injury. Nixon caught four passes for 94 yards and two touchdowns in the opener against Georgia Tech and hasn't played since, though there's optimism he could return to the field against Temple.
Without Nixon available, Marlon Williams and Jaylon Robinson have emerged as the top receiving duo in the AAC. In fact, the pair ranks No. 1 and No. 2 in the AAC, respectively, in receiving with Williams averaging 140.0 yards per game and Robinson 118.3. Williams also leads the conference with 59 receptions and 840 yards, and his six touchdowns are tied for second. Robinson ranks second in the league with 709 receiving yards on just 37 catches (including four TDs) – an explosive 19.2 yards per catch. Recently, sophomore Ryan O'Keefe – who leads the AAC with an average of 25.4 yards per catch, which leads all FBS receivers with 10 or more receptions – has blossomed. O'Keefe caught a pair of touchdown passes against Houston and now has 356 yards and three scores on 14 receptions.
As usual, UCF has a diverse set of options in the running game. Greg McCrae and Otis Anderson have shared carries with similarly successful results, despite both suffering their share of nicks and bruises along the way. McCrae leads the team with 89 attempts, 496 yards and five touchdowns, but Anderson is close behind with 480 yards and three TDs on 87 carries. Bentavious Thompson (232 yds., 3 TDs) is productive as well, and Gabriel can run when necessary, having gained 116 yards with one touchdown on the ground.
Temple isn't the only team dealing with personnel shortages. Ten UCF players opted out of the season before it kicked off, including cornerback Tay Gowan, who announced his intention to enter the 2021 NFL Draft. In recent weeks, the Knights also lost several starters following an off-field incident, including second-leading tackler Eric Mitchell, as well as defensive lineman Kenny Turnier and safety Antwan Collier, both of whom have since entered the transfer portal.
Nevertheless, UCF has a more complete and consistent offense capable of covering up some of its defensive deficiencies. And though the Knights rank No. 10 in the AAC in total defense (474.2 ypg), which is four spots behind the Owls (433.0), UCF has a slight edge on a per-play basis, having allowed 6.01 yards per snap compared to Temple's 6.22. Temple should be able to push the ball through the air, especially if Anthony Russo is anything close to 100 percent healthy, but it will be difficult to keep pace with the AAC's No. 1 scoring offense (45.0 ppg).
Prediction: UCF 45, Temple 20
Podcast: Week 11 Preview and Predictions
(Top photo courtesy of @UCF_Football)