If upending winless Central Florida at home kept Tulane out of immediate danger, upsetting undefeated Temple would be a big-time perception changer.
Nationally, the only publicity that the Green Wave’s 45-31 victory last Saturday created was negativity directed toward UCF.
FoxSports.com’s Stewart Mandel listed the Knights’ George O’Leary as one of five coaches on the hot seat, pointing out they were 0-5 “with losses to FIU, Furman and Tulane.”
Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde labeled UCF one of the five most disappointing programs in the land, adding “the list of FBS teams that have trailed Tulane by 28 at any moment in a game the last decade is rather brief.”
Forde was correct. Before the Wave led the Knights 45-17 in the fourth quarter, it had happened only twice since the start of 2005: in a 49-10 victory against UAB in 2011 and a 45-3 rout of UTEP in 2013.
But if Tulane (2-2, 1-0 American Athletic) topples Temple (4-0, 1-0) at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday, the Wave no longer will be lumped with teams like FIU and Furman or see its beaten opponent lampooned for an embarrassing loss.
The Owls, who handled Penn State 37-10 to open the season, check in at 29th in the latest Associated Press poll. Mandel projects them as the “Group of Five” selection in an access bowl ahead of No. 24 Boise State, Houston and Memphis.
Tulane, which lost by a combined score of 102-17 to Duke and Georgia Tech in its first two games, is eager to put those results even farther in the rearview mirror.
“It’s going to be a heck of a challenge, but I think we’re up to it,” quarterback Tanner Lee said. “We want to be able to win games like this. It’s a big opportunity.”
Temple is the first of four consecutive undefeated teams Tulane will play in October, with Houston, Navy and Memphis combining with the Owls for a 17-0 record. Asked if he had seen a stretch like that, coach Curtis Johnson recalled his high school days in St. Charles Parish — “back when I had hair.”
It’s been a long time.
“Hopefully we can continue to improve and continue to have confidence in beating some of these teams,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we can beat them all and they can be talking about us like we’re talking about them.”
Temple returns 18 starters, including 10 on defense, from the group that beat the Wave 10-3 in a somnambulist’s special (15 punts, 13 points) in December at Yulman Stadium. Linebacker Tyler Matakevich, the NCAA’s active career leader in tackles with 355, is a one-man wrecking crew with three sacks and two interceptions. Running back Jahad Thomas has surpassed 100 yards three times in four games.
“They’re probably the best team in the conference right now,” Johnson said. “They have great defensive linemen. The linebackers and the defensive front are outstanding. Everyone in the secondary is back. Offensively, the quarterback is back, and the running back is key. They have two great receivers and a big offensive line.”
Tulane counters with 15 returning starters, including Lee, a host of running backs, wide receiver Teddy Veal, four offensive linemen, three defensive linemen, two linebackers and potential all-conference defensive backs Parry Nickerson and Darion Monroe.
“We both were young last year,” Monroe said. “That’s why the game was so horrible.”
After a horrid start this season, Tulane rebounded with its first back-to-back double-digit wins (against FCS squad Maine and UCF) since 2004. Lee, who had thrown nine interceptions through four games a year ago, is not the same player who completed 16 of 33 passes for 109 yards while getting sacked four times by the blitz-happy Owls in December.
He has tossed just two interceptions and had none against UCF, when he threw for a career-best four touchdowns.
“He may have had some better performances like the Houston game a year ago, but this performance was just calm, cool and collected,” Johnson said. “He just played so well. He looked so comfortable back there.”
Temple’s defensive numbers are not as rock solid as its burgeoning reputation would indicate. The Owls rank 70th nationally in yards allowed, having given up 34 first downs and 557 yards in a 34-26 victory at Cincinnati, 393 passing yards in a 25-23 win at Massachusetts and 223 rushing yards against Charlotte on Saturday.
Offensively, the Owls have relied heavily on Thomas while junior quarterback P.J. Walker’s repeats his sophomore slump. Walker, who completed 47.5 percent of his passes in the last eight games a year ago, has thrown for more than 143 yards only once in the first four games.
On the surface, the Wave appears confident its recent roll is for real.
“If we just play how we can play, the name of the opponent doesn’t matter,” said defensive end Royce LaFrance, who had three sacks in a four-play sequence against UCF. “It’s all about our team. If we play how we can play, we’re good.”
The key is bottling the performance against UCF and taking it on the road.
“We can’t be satisfied,” Lee said. “We have to continue to work hard, be consistent, move the ball down the field and score points. It’s going to be a good test for us.”
Johnson said sophomore cornerback Richard Allen, who missed practice this week with a sprained ankle, might not be ready for Temple. Redshirt freshman Donnie Lewis Jr. or true freshman Taris Shenall would start in Allen’s place. … Running back Lazedrick Thompson, who was limited against UCF with a sprained ankle and then sprained his other ankle during the game, likely will not be available.