Date: Thursday, December 21, 2017
Start Time: 8:00 p.m. EST
Location: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida
Regular season records: Temple 6-6 (4-4 American), FIU 8-4 (5-3 Conference USA)
All-Time Series: This is the first ever meeting between the two programs.
Betting Line: Temple -7, O/U 57
Temple Owls Outlook
It was an expected rough start to the season for first-year head coach Geoff Collins after inheriting an Owls team that not only lost Matt Rhule, but a significant portion of its American Athletic Conference championship team. It took some time for everyone to acclimate with the new coaching staff, but Collins has Temple back in a bowl game for a third straight season, and is preparing for a program he knows fairly well. Collins spent the 2010 season as an assistant with FIU, also bringing in strength and conditioning coaches David Feely and Ryan Horton from the Panthers program.
It was a midseason change to quarterback Frank Nutile that jumpstarted the Owls’ offense into bowl eligibility. After a 3-5 start and a crushing loss to Army in overtime, any shot at postseason play seemed out of reach. However, with Nutile under center, Temple finished the season 3-1, with the lone loss coming to the undefeated AAC champions, the UCF Knights. Known as "Juice" by his teammates, Nutile gets to take on an FIU defense that ranks 93rd against the pass and the weather should favor a passing attack.
Temple has a plethora of weapons on offense that will make life difficult for FIU, and the Owls’ strength on offense is the multitude of options Nutile has in the passing game. Whether it is Isaiah Wright, Adonis Jennings, Keith Kirkwood or Ventell Bryant, most defensive backs in the country will struggle to matchup with their size and speed. Wright has been the Owls’ top offensive threat, scoring three touchdowns through the air, a rushing score, a kick return for a touchdown and punt return for points as well. Throw in a successful two-point conversion pass completion, which makes Wright only the sixth FBS athlete to reach that feat in the past decade. The sophomore really can do it all for offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude.
A solid running game has been a staple in North Philadelphia over the past decade, but it was a lackluster year on the ground for Temple. Ryquell Armstead did not have the season that many expected after recording 919 yards and 14 touchdowns while sharing carries with Jahad Thomas a year ago, but nagging injuries have hampered him all season long. David Hood has been the better back this season, rushing for 562 yards and four touchdowns, and has 25 receptions for 172 yards and a score as well. With both ball carriers having ample time to recover, expect both to get into the mix on Thursday.
Temple football has been predicated on stout defenses since their resurgence and Collins finally got things working on that side of the ball as the season progressed. The effort was led by a defensive line that had some questions entering the season with Haason Reddick and much of last year's production no longer with the team. Jacob Martin and Sharif Finch have not only been one of the best duos in the conference, but in the nation with 15.5 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss between the two. As a group, Temple is tied for 13th nationally with 92 tackles for a loss. They'll have their work cut out for them as they square off against a Panthers offensive line that's allowed just 22 sacks all season.
The back end of the defense is the Owls’ greatest strength, led by Delvon Randall and Sean Chandler, who both could hear their names called come the 2018 NFL Draft. Temple led the AAC in passing yards allowed (210 YPG), while finishing second in the conference in total defense (391.8 YPG) and third down conversion percentage (39.3 percent). The defense will be crucial as FIU sports the top red zone offense in the nation, scoring on a staggering 97.5 percent of their opportunities inside the opponent's 20 yard-line.
FIU Panthers Outlook
The Panthers are back in a bowl game for the first time since 2011, when they played in the same bowl game against Marshall. A lot has changed since then. Back in those days, this game was named the Beef O'Brady's Bowl, and Florida International was still a member of the Sun Belt Conference. They have moved to Conference USA since, and first-year coach Butch Davis is looking for a school and personal record should his squad reach the nine-win mark with a victory.
Alex McGough leads the offense for the Panthers, and much like Nutile, has played his best football as the season has come to a close. McGough has thrown just two interceptions and is completing 70 percent of his throws in the last six games, which includes the 104 points scored in blowout wins over Western Kentucky and UMass to close out the regular season.
McCough will be without his top target, Thomas Owens, who arguably would have been the most explosive player on the field for either team. He suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the season after leading the team with 59 receptions for 887 yards and six touchdowns. Owens is tied with running back Alex Gardner for the team lead in touchdowns. Gardner has accounted for 835 yards from scrimmage, which trails only Owens.
Remember that stat about the Panthers red zone offense? They hold their own on the other side of the ball as well, ranking 25th in the country in scoring drives allowed red zone. The passing game is where Temple has had success as of late so it will be interesting to see where Brad Muhammad lines up. The senior leads FIU in takeaways with his four interceptions, and has one of the team's two defensive touchdowns.
FIU does a solid job of limiting teams on the ground, allowing 174 yards per game. The Panthers will look to force Temple into passing situations where Fermin Silva (six sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss) and Anthony Johnson (5.5 sacks) wreck havoc.
The Vegas line is somewhat shocking considering that this is almost a home game for FIU, while Temple is a long way from North Philadelphia. Statistically, these two teams almost mirror each other, and basically had the same results against their common opponents, UMass and UCF. Both have the ability to score and play solid defense, but the edge goes to Temple in their special teams game.
Wright has shown he can take the ball to house any time the ball is in his hands. He will be an X-factor, but FIU has had plenty of time to study the film on the Owls. That's why this game will be much closer than the line indicates, but in the end, Temple's senior class is the winningest in school history and cements their legacy with their first bowl win.
Temple 31 - FIU 27