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In Matt Rhule’s introductory press conference as the head coach of the Temple University Owls football team, he mentioned his team will throw the ball until they were good at it. After years as an assistant coach in college football and the NFL, Rhule thought his best chance at success would be to spread defenses out and attack them through the air. His first year as head coach ended in a disappointing 2-10 record, and Rhule took a step back and re-evaluated his philosophy. It then became clear that the team’s style of play didn’t fit his personality as a coach. It also didn’t mesh well with the life lessons he wanted his players to walk away with when they left the Temple football program so he changed his philosophy to fully reflect his personal values.
As Rhule continues to put the finishing touches on his fourth season as head coach, his philosophy has become abundantly clear to anyone who watches a Temple football game. From the situations and environments that he puts the players in during the offseason to the offensive play calling on game day, there is one overriding theme: Toughness.
In a conference known for some of the highest scoring offenses in college football, Temple’s defense and punishing ground game is a throwback to generations past. While Rhule will occasionally put three receivers on the field and ask his fourth-year starting quarterback to make a play, the Owls’ bread and butter has come primarily from heavy sets with multiple tight ends and/or running backs. And while defenses are well aware that the Owls want to run the ball, stopping them is another feat altogether.
[dt_divider style=”thick” /]21 Personnel Package
Temple’s 21 personnel package, made up of two running backs, one tight end, and two wide receivers, is where the Owls become truly two-dimensional. Despite primarily being a run package, Temple uses 21 personnel to throw the ball about half the time which creates very good balance. Because of their success on the ground and toughness up front, defenses are forced to commit extra defenders to the run which opens up passing lanes and creates one-on-one matchups for the receivers. Conversely, the Owls success through the air also creates conflict for the defense, which in turn can help lighten up the box for the run game.
Another way Temple likes to keep defenses off-balance is by attacking them horizontally. In his postgame press conference following Temple’s regular season ending victory against East Carolina, Rhule noted this. He mentioned that the Owls like to get the ball out to the perimeter early in the game even from the tight formations that they prefer to run from. This forces the defense to chase the ball and defend the whole field, keeping them on their toes from the outset. One way the Owls accomplish this is with their toss sweep play.
On the opening drive in a critical American Athletic Conference matchup versus South Florida, Temple has the ball on its own 33-yard line with two yards to gain from the left hash for a first down. The offense has its 21 personnel package on the field with quarterback Phillip Walker (#8) lined up under center in a single back alignment with a tight end, wide receiver, and fullback to his left in a tight bunch formation and WR Ventell Bryant (#1) split to the opposite hash. The South Florida defense, expecting run, puts eight men in the box leaving one deep safety over the top.
When the ball is snapped, the Owls execute a toss sweep to the boundary with Walker opening to his right and pitching the ball to running back Ryquell Armstead (#25) who takes a wide angle to the edge. Wide receiver Keith Kirkwood (#89) crashes down inside and puts a crack block on the USF linebacker and TE Colin Thompson (#86) gets a great seal block on the defensive end.
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With the DE and LB sealed inside, fullback Nick Sharga (#4) gets outside and takes out the cornerback while left tackle Dion Dawkins (#66) pulls out and gets just enough of a block on a pursuing defensive tackle to allow Armstead to get the edge and pick up five yards and a first down.
Finding success on the ground makes it difficult for defenses to defend a vertical passing game as well and with two wide receivers in the 21 personnel package, Temple is still able to run a variety of passing concepts.
On this next play, which came early in the first quarter of a late season matchup with the Connecticut Huskies, the Owls line up on the right hash in the i-formation with one tight end on the line of scrimmage and a receiver split to both sides of the field. The Huskies lineup with five men on the line of scrimmage and four defenders deep but all four “deep” defenders, displaying tremendous respect for the Temple run game, are within nine yard of the line of scrimmage.
This is where having an experienced, senior QB and talented receivers comes into play. The advantage that the run game provides for the passing game is only useful if the offense can execute through the air. Walker calls for the snap, turns to his right, executes a play fake to Armstead, gets to the top of his seven-step drop, looks deep, and fires a 45-yard strike to Bryant on a deep corner route.
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The Owls execute a beautiful three-level stretch concept with Sharga releasing into the flat, Kirkwood coming across the field on a deep crossing route, and Bryant running the deep corner. The Owls were able to get Bryant, their young star receiver, matched up one-on-one with the UConn cornerback and Bryant showed why the staff puts so much faith in him in these scenarios. The young wideout releases vertically off the line of scrimmage running hard toward the middle of the field which forces CB Jamar Summers (#21) to flip his hips and turn inside. Bryant then plants his inside foot 15 yards into his route and breaks out toward the sideline, gaining separation from Summers and giving Walker a big window to throw into.
[dt_divider style=”thick” /]22 Personnel Package
The 22 personnel package, which puts two RBs, two TEs and one receiver on the field, is – by far – Temple’s favorite package. Although it limits the passing concepts that the defense has to prepare for, it has an equally damaging effect on a defense. This is where the toughness really comes out in Rhule’s philosophy. The Owls know they are running the ball out of this personnel alignment, their opponents know they are running the ball, and they do it anyway. This can have a devastating impact on the psyche of a defense when they know what is coming and are helpless to stop it. The 22 personnel package is the Owls’ way of telling their opponents that they own them.
Temple has a lot of variety to its run game. It runs both inside and outside zone concepts, isolations, sweeps, and fullback dives but, its favorite concept is the classic power run. On the next play, it is late in the third quarter of their matchup with USF and the Owls trail by three. The offense lines up in the i-formation with two tight ends in a heavy alignment to Walker’s right and a single receiver split to the far side of the field. USF puts nine defenders in the box to stop the run as well as both a corner and a safety out wide in bracket coverage over Bryant.
Walker takes the snap, turns to his left, and hands the ball to Armstead. While this is happening, Sharga fires out to his right and puts a devastating block on the USF cornerback nearly sending him back into the stands while backside guard Jovahn Fair (#70) pulls around behind Sharga and turns inside, sealing off any pursuit from the inside.
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Armstead simply follows his blocks and turns on the jets for a 42-yard touchdown.
Even though the passing game might be somewhat limited from a schematic standpoint out of 22 personnel, Temple is still able to throw the ball by isolating Bryant one-on-one and simply trusting him to execute. The reason the Bulls felt the need to bracket Bryant on the last play is because earlier in the game, Bryant burned them on a post pattern from the same formation.
It was early in the second quarter and Temple was facing a 3rd and 3 just inside USF territory. They are again in the i-formation with two TEs to Walker’s right and Bryant split wide left. The Bulls put eight men in the box with the two deep safeties cheating way down to play the run leaving cornerback Johnny Ward (#24) alone with Bryant to the wide side of the field.
Walker takes the snap, turns to his left, fakes the handoff to Armstead, sucking both linebackers and one safety down inside before turning and firing the ball to Bryant on a post pattern for a 20-yard gain.
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With no safety help over the top, Ward is forced to play off of Bryant to ensure he is not beat deep and has no choice but to concede the post underneath.
The recent success of the Temple football program is built on much more than just the X’s and O’s though. Through the grueling full-contact practices throughout the year, the intensely competitive environment and dedication to academics, Rhule and his staff have instilled a shield of mental toughness throughout the program that cannot be easily penetrated. Under the overall theme of toughness, Temple’s gameday mantra is “body blows.” Their goal each week is to go out on the field, deliver endless body blows to the opponent and see who is left standing at the end.
This toughness will be put to the test this week by Navy, another team known for inflicting loads of physical punishment on its opponents with a triple option attack. Old school football fans should rejoice with this matchup, as it is shaping up to be a good old-fashioned slugfest.
Follow Sean on Twitter @PhllyDraft. Check out more of Sean’s work here, such as what Dorial Green-Beckham can do for the Philadelphia Eagles, how coach Bronco Mendenhall gets to the quarterback, how North Carolina State uses motion on offense, what Justin Fuente brings to the Virginia Tech Hokies offense, and on Mark Richt and the triangle offense in Miami.
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All film courtesy of ESPN.