By: Rich Flanagan
Photos: Mike Nance
PHILADELPHIA- During his time as a member of the Temple football program, Benny Walls has had five different head coaches at various times. He was recruited by Matt Rhule, now the head coach at Baylor University. As a freshman, Rhule left to take the Baylor job and special teams coordinator Ed Foley was interim head coach for the Owls Military Bowl loss to Wake Forest.
Shortly afterward, Geoff Collins was hired in 2017 and helped Walls progress as player, moving him from defensive back to safety. After two seasons, Collins was hired at Georgia Tech on December 7, 2018 and Miami (Fl.) defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was brought in to be the Temple’s newest coach. After eighteen days on the job without a game under his belt, Diaz took the head coaching job with the Hurricanes after Mark Richt announced his retirement. Before long, Rod Carey was brought in and the emotional whirlwind for Walls could subside.
The 6-1, 210-pound senior out of St. Joseph's Prep focused on improving his game and being ready to play, regardless of who was standing on the sideline. On Saturday, Collins brought the Yellow Jackets into Lincoln Financial Field, and as Walls described, it was business as usual.
“Honestly, when we’re in the game, everything is just blocked out,” Walls said. “It’s only what is in front of me. That’s how it is and it’s been like that for a long time. We knew it was not a factor at all.”
Walls recorded six tackles, picked off a pass and returned a fumble recovery for a touchdown to lead a dominant defensive effort for Temple in its 24-2 win over Collins and Georgia Tech. Temple held the Yellow Jackets offense scoreless and Walls made the biggest play in the game late in the third quarter.
Georgia Tech quarterback Tobias Oliver scrambled out of the pocket and redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Ifeanyi Maijeh (six tackles, two tackles for loss) stripped the football away. The ball took two bounces before Walls made a clean scoop and sprinted 74 yards to put the Owls up 21-0 at the 10:33 mark of the third.
It marked the second time Walls had been involved in an impact play as he and Harrison Hand blew up a fake field goal in Temple’s (4-1) upset victory over No. 21 Maryland two weeks ago.
That play epitomized the Owls defensive performance for much of the game and Carey, in his first season coaching Walls, noted the importance of the senior’s game.
“He was all over the field,” Carey said. “If you’re going to have a good football team, possibly a great one, your seniors have to play like seniors. What I mean by that is they have to play the best football of their lives.”
For Walls, it was his first touchdown in a long time.
“I saw the quarterback scrambling out then saw Ifeanyi Maijeh hit him and I just scooped it up,” Walls said. “I saw nothing but green grass in front of me and I knew I was going to score. It felt good to score a touchdown. I haven’t scored a touchdown since my senior year of high school.”
While with the Hawks, Walls was a Second Team All-Catholic as a junior (defensive back) then elevated to First Team as a senior at both corner and running back in 2015 on a team that featured D’Andre Swift (Georgia) in the backfield. He spent his first two years of high school at Camden Catholic (N.J.) but became an integral part of St. Joe’s Prep’s team on both sides of the ball as they won the PIAA Class 4A state title in 2014.
That last touchdown he’s referencing may have been a seven-carry, 115-yard game against La Salle College High School in the 2015 Philadelphia Catholic League Red Division Championship Game. He added touchdown runs of 44 and 55 yards. He scored those touchdowns under the watch of Gabe Infante, now the running backs coach for the Owls.
Walls has been able to seize opportunities when they’re presented and this was just another example.
“When the opportunity comes, you have to get it,” Walls said.
In the fourth quarter, Walls read Yellow Jackets backup quarterback James Graham perfectly and make an interception in the end zone to halt a drive that Georgia Tech (1-3) had moved the ball to Owls 14-yard line. Walls made two of a handful of plays that brought Georgia Tech drives to a close.
After Temple drove down the Yellow Jackets 10-yard line, Anthony Russo, who finished the game 9-for-22 for 127 yards, tried to force a pass into the end zone but it was intercepted. Georgia Tech ran four quick plays and turned the ball over on downs on its opening drive of the game.
The game was scoreless until freshman running back Re’Mahn Davis sprinted 18 yards off left tackle on a 4th& 1 to give the Owls a 7-0 lead with 6:53 left in the second quarter. Davis ran for 135 yards and he added a second scoring run six minutes and 45 seconds after his first one.
The defense did the rest by keeping the Yellow Jackets out of the end zone and the game concluded for Georgia Tech as it started with a turnover on downs, this time at the Owls 12-yard line. Temple’s only blemish was a safety in the third.
Despite the offense’s struggles over the last three games, Walls professed what it has meant to have the defense playing at such a high level during that span.
“It means a lot,” Walls said. “Defense wins championships. If the other team doesn’t score, you always have an opportunity.”
The win wasn’t overshadowed by Collins’ return and next season the Owls begin a home-and-home series with Diaz and the Hurricanes. Still, Carey knew it was the elephant in the room and he left up to his team to focus on the game itself, especially after having suffered the first loss of the season last week to Buffalo.
“We were obviously coming off of a disappointing loss so we knew we had to focus on us,” Carey said. “They had the relationship with Geoff. I don’t. I asked them about it and they said, ‘This is about us.’ I followed their lead on this.”
LOOKING AHEAD:The Owls have a short week and will travel to play East Carolina University on Thursday evening at 8 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN.