Branden Mack holds on for a reception in Temple’s season-opening loss to Navy. (Photo: Tommy Gilligan, USA TODAY Sports)
On his game-clinching touchdown against USF, Randle Jones caught a screen pass from Anthony Russo and scooted around the edge and up the sideline for a 13-yard score. It was a simple play that Temple used repeatedly against the Bulls, and in its season opener against Navy, and will surely continue to be featured in the offense in 2020.
While the screen game appears to be built around speed and elusiveness on the perimeter, it’s really just like any other play that requires precision in executing the throw, the catch, and blocking for the receiver.
This year, the Owls have been really good at executing those fundamentals, starting with Russo’s throw.
“We’ve thrown a ton of them and I’ve stayed after practice and thrown a ton of them,” Russo said after Saturday’s win. “That’s a ball where we say all the time, six inches makes a difference. You want that ball on their upfield shoulder. If it’s six inches to the left and it’s on their back shoulder, they might have to turn and slow down to run. But if I’m able to put that on their front shoulder or right in the middle of their chest and let them catch and run, it gives them a better chance to go out and make a play. So I think my ball location on those has definitely been pivotal to being able to get that outside and get that on the run.”
The Owls completed 8 of 9 wide receiver screens for 49 yards against USF. While those numbers don’t jump off the page, think about whether 9 carries for 49 yards would be considered a successful rushing effort.
And just like a running play, there’s nothing more important than blocking on a screen pass.
“The saying is if you block you get the ball,” Jones said. “So we really hone in on blocking for each other. It’s a team effort. So it’s not only the person who gets the ball. If everybody blocks, everybody gets the ball. That’s how the culture is in our room.”
“It’s very important,” Mack said. “Your guy cannot make the tackle. That’s what Coach (Thad) Ward preaches all the time. My guy cannot make the tackle. Especially the way our wide receiver group is set up, we’re very close, and we don’t want our guy to make some very impactful play. I don’t want that to happen. So I go out there and block my butt off.”
Against USF, Jones caught four screen passes that picked up 41 yards. Blue caught four screen passes for eight yards. Against Navy, Russo was 4 for 4 on wide receiver screens, hitting Blue three times and Mack once.
Jones is the fastest of the three, but he said it’s not just a matter of winning a foot race to the edge. In fact, it’s often not about getting to the edge, but rather finding a lane to duck inside.
“The screen game, it’s just you pick a hole and you go, no thinking, just get as many yards as you can, that’s the emphasis,” Jones said. “It’s not who’s faster, who’s not. It’s just executing the play.”
Coach Rod Carey noted this week that it’s a combination of skills that the Owls have at the wide receiver position that has produced so much success early this year.
“When you’ve got receivers like we do that are fast and physical, because a lot of times you get receivers that aren’t that way – our guys are fast and physical – I think you certainly can take advantage of that,” Carey said. “And our guys have.”
The other advantage that the screen game has created for the Owls is the ability to build plays off its success. Late in the season opener at Navy, Russo threw a screen pass to Mack, but it was a backwards pass, and as the Navy defense reacted to the play, Mack lofted a pass to tight end David Martin-Robinson for a 35-yard gain to set up Temple’s late touchdown.
“I play with the coaches all the time about me throwing the ball because I used to play quarterback (in high school),” Mack said. “But that’s not really something that I really care for. (If) they’re going to let me throw the ball, they’re going to let me throw the ball. My job is to go out there and execute on the perimeter, make catches, block for the running backs and for screens.”
Russo said the screen game isn’t so much about setting up trick plays but rather a basic tool in setting up the offense.
“We have three wide receivers out there, and if they don’t put three over three, we’re going to get it on the edge,” the senior quarterback explained. “If teams want to give us those throws to the outside, we’re going to take them because we’ve got great blocking on the edge and we’ve got those playmakers. And if they want to have three guys out there, then the run’s good in the box. So I think it’s a simple play for us and it’s kind of a win-win.”
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