Sluggish Villanova gets 'rough' win over Penn

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Sluggish Villanova gets 'rough' win over Penn

BOX SCORE

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- After catapulting into the national rankings with huge wins over Kansas and Iowa in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving weekend, Villanova returned home looking like a team that can challenge for a Big East title and perhaps even make a deep run in March.

But after a sloppy 77-54 victory over Penn at the Pavilion on Wednesday (see Instant Replay), Villanova head coach Jay Wright offered a reminder for anyone that wants to put the No. 14 Wildcats on a pedestal just yet.

“We’re not a finished product at all,” Wright said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. I like our team. We’re going to be good. But we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Wright didn’t have too many positive things to say about his team following Villanova’s Big 5 opener Wednesday -- which might seem silly when you consider ’Nova won by 23 points and never trailed.

But if you were at the Pavilion, it’s easy to understand the head coach’s concern. After jumping out to a huge first-half lead, the Wildcats fell asleep coming out of the halftime break, failing to score any second-half points for seven-and-a-half minutes and not converting a field goal until more than 10 minutes had elapsed.

“We certainly didn’t play a pretty game, but when that happens it’s always the other team that plays well,” Wright said. “We were a little bit off our game, but they were really good. They executed and they played harder than us, so we don’t look good. I give them credit and we’re going to learn from this.”

Despite Villanova’s cold streak to start the second half, the Quakers had trouble making up too much ground, only slicing the lead to single digits a couple of times. The closest they’d come was 56-48 after sophomore swingman Julian Harrell finished a pretty drive with seven minutes left.

“You know, it was crazy,” Penn head coach Jerome Allen said. “We had it to nine and had four consecutive stops. But you can’t give possessions away. Out of those four possessions for us, I think two of them ended with unforced turnovers. That’s unfortunate but we’ll learn from it. Some things you’re willing to live with so we can live for tomorrow. But you can’t play Division I basketball and continue to give teams opportunity after opportunity after opportunity because eventually they’re going to score the ball.”

For the game, the Wildcats shot just 18 for 52 from the field but did a lot of damage from the free throw line, where they made 31 of their 40 foul shots. They also avoided the upset scare, thanks to some hot shooting from Darrun Hilliard (19 points on 4 for 6 shooting from three-point range) and solid games from JayVaughn Pinkston (13 points, seven rebounds) and James Bell (14 points, eight rebounds).

Sophomore point guard Ryan Arcidiacono had another poor shooting night, going just 1 for 10 from the field.

“I think we have certain players that individually can take over,” Wright said. “We have guys that can turn it on. But that’s not a good plan for success.”

While mostly upset with his team’s performance, Wright did admit that he was pleased with the defense Hilliard and Arcidiacono played on Penn leading scorer Tony Hicks, who was held to just one point while battling foul trouble. The Villanova coach also was happy to hold Miles Jackson-Cartwright to three points in the second half after the Quakers' senior erupted for 14 first-half points, including a stretch of three consecutive three-pointers.

What he didn’t like defensively was how Villanova dealt with Penn freshman point guard Tony Bagtas, who played 36 minutes in his first collegiate start and effectively escaped trouble from the Wildcats’ three-quarters court trap.

“I didn’t even see him on film,” Wright said. “And that kid did a hell of a job. We couldn’t do anything with him. He got wherever he wanted to go.”

Coming into Wednesday’s game, it would have been hard to predict that Bagtas would play 36 minutes, considering he averaged 4.8 minutes per game through Penn’s first six contests.

But against the Wildcats’ press, Allen decided to hand the rookie the keys to the car, and Bagtas responded with seven points, nine assists and six rebounds -- although he also committed five turnovers.

“I thought he was great,” Allen said. “I thought he played at the right pace. I thought he tried to make plays for us. And he’s only going to get better.”

“I think Tony led us from the start,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “We were confident with the ball in his hands. We’ve always been confident in what he can do, and I thought he was great at being poised, keeping us all calm and setting the offense.”

While Bagtas could be the missing piece to a still-developing Penn rotation that already features senior standouts Jackson-Cartwright and Fran Dougherty and sophomore rising stars Hicks and Darien Nelson-Henry, Villanova already has all of its pieces in places, as evidenced by its impressive 8-0 start.

And with each win, the Wildcats’ status as a national power will continue to grow, as will their No. 14 ranking. But Wright knows the 'Cats can fall off their perch just as quickly.

“I like being ranked, I really do,” Wright said. “I think it’s great for the school, great for our conference, great for our fans and great for Philadelphia basketball. There’s nothing bad about it. This doesn’t have anything to do with that. It just has to do with our commitment to playing every game and every possession the same way.

“It was just a rough game,” he later added. “A Big 5 game.”

Penn State's Saquon Barkley staying patient with sluggish run game

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Penn State's Saquon Barkley staying patient with sluggish run game

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Saquon Barkley believes he can score a touchdown every time he takes a handoff.

Don't mistake the Penn State running back's confidence for arrogance. He's put plenty of evidence on tape in just 15 games to earn a growing reputation as one of the country's most dangerous backs in space.

But with each game this season, Barkley's discovering that space isn't always there in Penn State's new zone-read rushing attack that ranks near the bottom of every major statistical category. Barkley's sure if he remains persistent, more of those highlight-reel runs will come, however.

"We've got to be patient," Barkley said Wednesday. "Stuff will open up and I've got to step up as a player and make more guys miss and break more tackles and we've really got to start getting our run game going because if we get the run game going, that can open up the passing game even more."

Barkley leads the Big Ten with six rushing touchdowns but Penn State ranks last in the conference and 122nd in the nation with just over 101 rushing yards per game. Those sagging rushing numbers can be traced to the big-play back being bottled up before he even gets going.

Usually Barkley's first step is backward in Joe Moorhead's zone-read rushing attack. A delayed handoff follows and Barkley or quarterback Trace McSorley have at times been swallowed up quickly as defenders converge on the mesh point. Although his 55-yard score against Temple came on an inside zone run, Barkley's average on such plays over the last three games falls to just 1.4 yards without it.

It's a cause for concern for Penn State's offensive staff, which is committed to finding more ways to get Barkley the ball as the team prepares to face Minnesota (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten) on Saturday.

Shovel passes and pitches have made brief appearances. Barkley's also caught 10 passes thus far and direct snaps may show up in the future.

Eliminating inside zone reads isn't an option, though.

"There's a lot of different ways," Penn State coach James Franklin said.

Penn State has had success on the outside. Even with a delayed start, Barkley's done most of his damage over the last three games when he's been able to flank defenders. He's averaging 10.8 yards per carry on those plays, further evidence of his skill on the edge.

"He's a game-changing player," center Brian Gaia said.

But one that's not comfortable lobbying his coaches for more touches or criticizing a young offensive line that will likely start two freshmen guards this weekend. Like Franklin, Barkley believes a little more early physicality coupled with his own patience will open things up in the middle.

"I would say the thing that we really need to improve the most is just coming out stronger, coming out faster and starting fast," Barkley said. "Physically, I think we're there. Mentally, we've really got a good grasp of the system but, especially in away games, we've been starting out really slow."

Temple readying for conference play, SMU's uptempo attack

Temple readying for conference play, SMU's uptempo attack

Take a look at the standings and you’ll see the Temple Owls are 2-2 so far this season with wins over Stony Brook and Charlotte and losses to Army and Penn State.

But take a peek to the right of that 2-2 mark and you’ll see a 0-0 record in AAC conference play.

While the Owls would most certainly like to have a better record than the 2-2 record they sport at this very moment, the silver lining is that none of those games were conference games. Therefore, those games don’t affect Temple’s overall goal of defending its AAC Eastern Division crown.

But, on Saturday afternoon, that title defense finally begins when Temple welcomes SMU and its uptempo offensive attack to Lincoln Financial Field in the first of eight straight AAC games that will close out the regular season.

“It sort of feels like a new start to the season,” Temple senior quarterback Phillip Walker said following Tuesday’s practice on campus at Edberg-Olsen Hall. “It’s just another great opportunity for us not to look back on anything or think about anything that happened in the past in the first four games. Now it’s an opportunity to play our next eight games and enjoy playing the conference again.”

The good news for Temple heading into conference play is that the offense has found its stride. The Owls overwhelmed Charlotte last week, 48-20, behind 268 yards and two touchdowns throws from the arm of Walker and two touchdowns runs a piece from senior Jahad Thomas and Sophomore Ryquell Armstead. After early struggles, Walker is now up to 846 yards and five touchdowns on the year.

That’s after the tough loss at Penn State two weeks ago when the offense settled itself for the first time this season and found continuity. Thomas’ return to the backfield has helped, as he’s scored four touchdowns in two games since missing the first two games of the year with a dislocated left thumb.

The Temple defense is still hurting itself with a lackluster pass rush. The Owls have only five sacks through the first four games. Last season, they had 10 sacks in the first game alone. Big plays allowed are an issue, too, as Temple has allowed 10 plays of 20 yards or more from scrimmage through four games.

But the confidence is there and the Owls believe they are getting better each week.

“I think we’re better than where we were [earlier in the year,]” said redshirt senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick, who has five tackles for loss on the year. “A lot of guys are stepping up, locking in on the small details that were hurting us the first couple of weeks. We’ve got the younger guys playing better and harder, so I think we’ve come a long way. I still think there are some things we need to get better on, but we’re close.

“Those first four games, none of those teams were conference teams. It was like preseason to work out the kinks. Now it’s time to go. It’s full-throttle now. There’s no time to make mistakes. There’s no time to beat ourselves.”

Temple head coach Matt Rhule, on the other hand, doesn’t like to talk much about the “fresh start” or “restart” that comes with the beginning of AAC play this weekend.

He preaches the importance of conference play every week, and he has proof.

“Every week, I put up the conference rankings, no matter what,” he said Tuesday “Week 1 when we lost, I put up the conference rankings. Week 2 when we won, I put up the conference rankings. Week 3, Week 4, I do that every week because I want guys to understand the importance of conference wins, conference losses and conference play.

“I will say, to be fair, I did say we were going to try and get our kids to be ready for Week 4 or 5 or 6, because we knew we were going to have to play a lot of young guys and knew we were going to have to teach them.”

All the Owls, young and old, know they need to be prepared on Saturday.

The Mustangs have already equaled their win total from last season and have the same record, overall and conference, as the Owls heading into Saturday. They hung tough with Big 12 powerhouses Baylor (6-6 at half) and TCU (6-3 TCU at half) before eventually succumbing in the second half of both games.

Defensively, SMU is tied for tops in the nation with 10 interceptions. But plenty of focus goes on the Mustangs’ uptempo offense, which break off chunks of yardage in the blink of an eye with 448 yards per game so far this year. Rhule and the Owls know that fact better than anyone. The last two times these schools have met, SMU earned a 59-49 win in 2013 and Temple came away with a 60-40 victory last season. That’s 208 points combined in the last two meetings.

SMU’s fast-paced attack is exactly the type of offensive system Rhule’s Owls have historically struggled with, too.

“They have, obviously, a lot of offense,” Rhule said of Saturday’s foe. “(SMU head coach) Coach (Chad) Morris was one of the best offensive coordinators in the country. He did it at Clemson and he’s doing it there. There’s a lot to deal with. That’s the history of this series, though.”

Quarterback Matt Davis, who hurt Temple with both his arm and his feet last season, is out for the year with a knee injury suffered in Week 1. Ben Hicks has stepped in and thrown seven interceptions compared to just two touchdowns. But big-play receiver Cortland Sutton is still there and he already has four touchdown grabs on the year.

In practice this week, speed has been the theme of the Owls' defense, which is 28th in the nation with 327.3 yards allowed per game this year.

“It’s difficult to prepare for,” Reddick said of SMU’s offense. “You’ve got to just work on it in practice, going fast and getting the defensive calls faster. You have to look and read to the offense faster to see what you have to do faster. So you have to kick it up.”