With the rise of up-tempo offense, the nature of defense is now about lining up soundly and avoiding mistakes or having a glaring weakness, which spread teams can isolate and pick away like scabs.
If a defense can avoid giving away advantages, offenses are forced to out-execute with simplified playbooks. The upshot of this is that it's possible to build a top-10 defense at a place like the AAC's Temple, which lacks access to many blue-chip recruits.
The No. 21 Owls are 7-0, have their highest AP Poll ranking since 1979 and host both College GameDay and No. 9 Notre Dame on Saturday, all just a decade after they were kicked out of the Big East.
Third-year head coach Matt Rhule and coordinator Phil Snow are finding there is an advantage to being at a smaller program with a roster full of players who can be redshirted and developed, rather than having to worry about early playing time. The Owls returned almost literally everyone from what was in 2014 one of the most improved defenses ever. In today's game, you'd rather have a defense full of 22-year-old upperclassmen with lots of experience than a bunch of inexperienced 18-year-olds, as long as the talent is respectable.
Such is the case in Temple, and the results are a very solid defense that has the Owls in as good a position as anybody for the non-power New Year's Six bowl slot. A big upset of the Irish (Notre Dame's favored by 10.5 but projected to win by only 3.4) would put the Playoff itself in play.
Here's how Temple is leveraging experience and quality into one of the nation's toughest units.
Disguised yet sound
Under Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State was known for just lining up in its base defense, then daring opponents to out-execute a scheme the Spartans knew backward and forward.
Temple takes a different approach, using heavy disguise on every snap to keep QBs from getting their eyes on weaknesses. Temple safeties dance all over the backfield before aligning in a wide variety of positions.
Against Cincinnati, they often dropped into deep zones with man coverage underneath or into deep thirds while playing Tampa 2. And they mixed in some traditional Cover 3 as well. Whether you can recognize these coverages, the point is the Owls play a lot of them.
When they dropped into Cover 4 here, with the free safety playing close to the line, Cincy QB Gunner Kiel was totally confused and threw what appeared to be an awful interception:
Kiel demonstrated some pretty good vision over the course of this game, but on this play, he simply lost track of the safety.
It's not just base defenses that the Owls mix up. They also have some NFL-level blitzes that are exceptionally hard to pick up on. They move their defenders all over with hopelessly multiple pre-snap options. Here's one example:
The confusing alignment should indicate to the QB that he's about to get blitzed, but who will be where after the snap is unclear. Typically this would result in a man blitz with a single deep safety and an overload pressure to one side of the formation. Instead, Temple does this:
This is a conservative two-safety style of coverage, with the backside end dropping into the flat where a Cover 2 corner would normally be, the corner dropping deep like a safety, and the strong safety ($) and weakside linebacker (W) getting wide at the snap to play underneath zones to the three-receiver side.
Temple has five men rushing and an overload blitz, but the goal is to encourage the QB to throw the ball into a sound, two-deep zone pass defense.
Snow's absurdly complicated disguises make it difficult to get a clear picture of how to attack the Owls. They run packages that are well beyond what most collegiate QBs have ever seen.
What's more, the Owls do all this without exposing themselves. They are fifth in the nation in FEI's explosive drive rate, meaning opposing teams don't get down the field with explosive plays very often.
This is a highly experienced unit that's been in the same system for three years and boasts seven seniors amongst the major contributors, along with three redshirt juniors. But Temple's starters aren't just experienced. They also range from stout to good at every position.
It starts up front, where the Owls' tackle rotation of Matt Ioannidis, Averee Robinson and Hershey Walton is one of the best in the conference, if not the country. It's joined by end Nate D. Smith, who ranks No. 11 in the country in sacks per game with 0.93.
They're backed by potential All-American Tyler Matakevich at weakside linebacker, making a difficult front to run against.
While nursing a small lead, the Pen State Nittany Lions discovered the difficulties of running. They attempted to run inside zone with the center and left tackle, advancing to the second level before double-teaming the nose tackle in an attempt to hit Matakevich.
Not only does the left tackle fail to connect, the single-teamed defensive tackles reset the line in the backfield and totally thwarted the play design:
The goal of zone blocking is to widen and displace defensive linemen and create creases that are too wide for linebackers to fill. What you have here are DLs forcing the running back into narrow spaces and shrinking his available angles, thus making it much easier for the linebackers to reach the play before any gain is made.
The Temple front rips opponents on a weekly basis, and playing behind it, Matakevich has already posted absurd numbers with 65 tackles, seven tackles for loss, four sacks, four interceptions and four pass breakups.
Like most of the team, he's not an exceptional athlete. He was only a two-star prospect out of upstate New York, but his instincts are excellent, his technique is fantastic and he's powerful over the short distances he has to travel after his eyes put him in the right spots.
The Owls also boast a fantastic secondary with a mix of relatively heralded recruits like former three-star lockdown corner Sean Chandler and former walk-ons like safety Will Hayes. The Owls' disguises allow them to hide weaknesses, but they're still relying on players like Chandler to play press coverage at times or hold up on an island at others.
The Temple playbook includes a healthy heaping of very deep two-deep zones that make explosive plays hard to come by. With a strong front that can command double teams and play sound run defense without outnumbering the box, Temple can protect its backfield and play some bend-don't-break.
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The Owls face by far their most challenging test on Saturday. The Irish have a much better offensive line than any that Temple has faced this season (and probably won't let the Owls get a sack with a two-man rush, as PSU did), and Will Fuller is a much more explosive skill player than anyone on the Cincinnati or Penn State rosters.
On the flip side, Temple is going to bring every kind of disguise and coverage and will have a dozen ways to try and keep Fuller under wraps and confuse young quarterback DeShone Kizer. And this wouldn't be the first time an AAC power played spoiler this season to a Playoff contender.