By Tom Dougherty, CSNPhilly.com
Jahad Thomas came to Temple as an athlete, playing defensive back his freshman season.
Last summer, Owls head coach Matt Rhule decided to convert Thomas to running back and this season, the move has paid major dividends.
Thomas leads the American Athletic Conference with 822 yards and 12 touchdowns through seven games. He’s averaging 117.4 yards and 5.0 yards per carry.
Last Thursday against East Carolina, Thomas had his worst game of the season yet still found the end zone twice. He averaged 3.3 yards per carry for 66 yards on 20 carries against ECU.
“We have had a lot of success running the ball early in the season,” the junior RB said Tuesday. “Some teams want to stop the run, try to make us one-dimensional.
“We just do what we gotta do. The offensive line, they’ve been playing great so far. As long as they do what they do, protect P.J. (Walker), get the running game going, we’ll be great.”
On Saturday night, Thomas and the No. 21 7-0 Owls take on No. 9 6-1 Notre Dame at a sold-out Lincoln Financial Field. TU’s offense has struggled to get going in recent weeks.
Two games ago, a 30-16 win over Central Florida at the Linc, TU led, 14-13, at halftime and trailed, 16-14, heading into the fourth quarter before exploding for 16 in the final 15.
Even in their 49-10 win over Tulane on homecoming Oct. 10, the Owls had only an 11-point lead at halftime before rupturing for 28 points in the second half.
Against the Irish, it’s important for the Owls’ offense to find its groove in the game’s first 30 minutes.
“We have to establish the run game early,” Thomas said. “Just to get the team going and that may open it up in the passing game.
“Or vice versa. Get the passing game going and then it allows us to run the ball more effectively.”
While Temple’s offense has dealt with slow starts, the Owls are averaging 32 points. The 24 points against ECU are TU’s lowest point total this season.
The Owls benefit from a run game led by Thomas. Rhule placed an emphasis on the run game entering the season, and TU is averaging 148.9 yards per game on the ground.
Rhule hasn’t asked Walker to do much this season, as TU averages 197 yards in the air. Against ECU, the QB missed some throws but connected on a big one late to send TU to a victory.
“I would love the day that we look like Baylor and we go out there early on, scoring 30 points in the first quarter,” Rhule said of his offense’s slow starts. “But that’s not us.”
The Phil Snow-coached defense is TU’s backbone. The Owls allow 14.6 points per game — eighth in the nation. TU has generated 23 sacks — tied for eighth in the country — 12 interceptions and three forced fumbles. Temple has allowed 29 points in the second half, nine points in the fourth quarter and has four second-half shutouts.
According to Rhule, any time a team decides to play great defense, it commits to close games.
“It’s really hard to be a high, high scoring team and play great defense,” he said. “We’re averaging over 30 points a game. It’s not like we’re winning, 17-14. It just takes us a little while.”
Notre Dame offers a difficult task for Thomas and the TU offense. The Irish defense features several NFL prospects, including defensive tackle Sheldon Day and linebacker Jaylon Smith.
When TU played the Irish at South Bend in 2013, Day was a sophomore but the 6-foot-2, 291-pound DT impressed the then first-year head coach.
“I go back to that game a couple years ago,” Rhule said. “I remember coming out of that game and all I talked about was how good Sheldon Day was. So active.
“He’s constantly moving, he’s got power. He’s a great pass rusher. You have to have a plan for him. You can’t just go out there and say I’m going to play him one-on-one.
“You have to have a plan for him. He’s a really, really dynamic rusher and run defender.”
Rhule said TU’s offensive line has to work as a group to slow down Day. Since Day is three-technique, he doesn’t expect center Kyle Friend to see him much.
The Irish have a high-powered offense under Brian Kelly, but their defense is a challenge TU hasn’t faced since the PSU game. ND allows 22.6 points per game, while averaging 194.4 passing yards and 175.9 rushing yards.
Temple is ranked for the first time in 36 years, undefeated and a rising program, but the general feel is Notre Dame wins Saturday night — ND is a double-digit favorite.
And that’s a position the Owls are embracing.
“We love being the underdog, having that chip on our shoulder,” Thomas said. “It just makes us play even harder. What we’ve done, nobody is going to be satisfied with anything we’ve done.
“We could go 12-0 and it’s still going to be, ‘They possibly could have done this and that.’ As long as we keep that in our mind, keep that chip on our shoulder, we’ll do fine.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: See the story on CSNPhilly.com)