(Aaron Doster — USA Today Sports)
If you’re anything like me, last weekend’s victory over East Carolina has you reinvigorated. The 0–3 start in the AAC was abysmal, and I sensed that even the most diehard fans were having trouble feeling optimistic about the second half of the 2016 campaign. However, Saturday night felt like a watershed moment, and I think things are finally headed in the right direction.
The biggest reason why is the return of Gunner Kiel.
Fans clamored for Kiel for six games, and rightfully so. He finally got his window on Saturday night and he made the most of his first start of 2016, throwing for nearly 350 yards and four touchdowns without a turnover. Suddenly, the biggest question for a meandering 3–3 team has an answer, and nobody knows what to expect from the final five games.
The last time Gunner Kiel played in Philly was near the end of the 2014 season. The Bearcats needed a win in the final road game of the year to help secure a conference championship. The defense turned in a stellar performance to stuff the Owls in a 14–6 win. Kiel finished the afternoon with just 174 passing yards and a touchdown, but made no mistakes in a team victory that helped UC win a share of the 2014 AAC title.
In 2015, Temple sat at the beginning of the slate. The game was an unmitigated disaster for Kiel. He finished with a pair of touchdowns to go with four back-breaking interceptions. A late comeback fell short and the Bearcats dropped the conference opener. It was the beginning of the end for the 2015 season and Gunner Kiel’s tenure as a starter.
Saturday’s bout in Philadelphia against the Temple Owls will not be an easy one, and that’s why I’m excited for it. If the ECU performance was a fluke, we’ll know by Saturday night.
For the third time in three years, the Temple game will be a proving ground for Gunner. This year more than ever, the Owls will be ready. They rank 12th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, giving up an average of just 181 yards. They get after the quarterback like crazy, coming away with sacks on 10.7% of all plays, good for 3rd nationally. Over their last three games, that percentage jumps up to an absurd 19.1%, which is tops in the country by a wide margin. For comparison’s sake, East Carolina is easlily the worst sacking team in the FBS.
Gunner is a guy that seems to perform best when he’s allowed to sit back in the pocket and sling it. East Carolina let him do both of those things. Temple will allow him to do neither.
For a historically fragile QB who loves to rack up yards, a hard-hitting defense that chokes out the passing game is a daunting opponent. It’s even worse when you’ve just started your first game since November 2015.
If there’s a saving grace, it’s this: Temple has not intercepted many passes. The Bearcats defense ranks 4th nationally in opponent interception percentage at 5.3%. Temple’s defense, meanwhile, has picked off throws at a mediocre rate of 2.7%, putting them right in the middle of the pack in the country. The is great news for a guy that threw a handful of picks against this team last year.
If the offensive line can give Kiel time to find a target and get the ball out, we shouldn’t see a rash of turnovers again. He probably won’t duplicate Saturday’s 348-yard performance, but we could very well see a repeat of 2014’s 174-yard outing that earned a victory. For Kiel, minimizing mistakes will be the name of the game, and this Temple defense should let him do it.
The Owls are favored by a touchdown over the Bearcats. To get the victory, we’ll need another good game from the defense and more contributions from the running backs. Between the road atmosphere and the stingly Temple defense, it’ll be an early challenge for Kiel.
I think he’s up for it. I definitely am. Let’s find out what these Bearcats are made of.