Temple lost a key game in the race for the MAC East crown Wednesday night to the Ohio, but even in the defeat the nationally televised contest gave fans (and scouts) a rare opportunity to see Owls' junior running back Bernard Pierce.
Pierce, listed at 6-1, 218 pounds, entered the contest ranked 11th in the country in rushing yards per game (118.8) and tied for first with 18 rushing touchdowns (with Wisconsin's Montee Ball).
Slowing Pierce was clearly the focus of the Ohio Bobcats' game plan Wednesday night and they were largely successful, limiting Pierce to "just" 84 yards on 22 carries. Pierce did breakaway for a 20-yard touchdown in the third quarter that tied the game at 21-21, but the Bobcats eventually pulled away, taking the lead for good with 1:41 remaining in the game on a five-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tyler Tettleton to Donte Foster.
Pierce was actually overshadowed for much of the contest by a strong performance from Ohio's running back, senior Donte Harden, who rushed for 184 yards and caught two passes for another 75 yards in the game.
Harden, a senior, entered the game with only two touchdowns on the season and barely a blip on scouts' radar, but showed burst through the hole and enough speed to break away from the Temple defense. He broke free on a 33-yard run on Ohio's first drive and followed that up with a 25 yard touchdown reception down the left sideline on a perfectly executed wheel-route after play-action. His most impressive play came in the third quarter when he raced up the middle, deftly slipping past defenders and pulled away for an 81-yard touchdown that gave Ohio a 21-14 lead.
Scouts on hand and watching the telecast, however, had mostly tuned in to see Pierce. Despite likely being limited with a hamstring injury that has nagged him this season (and unfortunately, the past, as well), Pierce demonstrated the combination of power, elusiveness and speed to warrant all of the attention.
A standout since first stepping foot onto the field for the Owls, Pierce broke several freshman records in 2009 rushing for 1,361 yards and scoring 16 touchdowns. He rushed for over 100 yards six times. Hamstring and ankle injuries limited Pierce's 2010 season to just five starts (in ten games) but he still finished with 728 yards and led the team with 11 touchdowns (10 rushing, one receiving).
Against an Ohio defense that hasn't allowed a rusher to eclipse the century mark all season, Pierce showed good quickness to the hole and nice lateral agility to elude in tight quarters for a big back. Pierce runs a bit high, but keeps his legs churning on contact to break free from arm tackles. Perhaps his greatest assets appeared to be his vision and burst. Pierce had to work for his yards Wednesday night as Ohio defenders consistently met him at the point of attack, but the junior back showed the ability to bounce plays outside and beat the defense to the edge. Pierce has not been a featured target in Temple's limited passing game, so there are questions about his ability as a receiver out of the backfield. He did step up in pass protection, however, showing the willingness and form to take on blitzing linebackers.
I'd personally rank Alabama's Trent Richardson, Washington's Chris Polk and Virginia Tech's David Wilson ahead of him as potential 2012 running back prospects. Miami redshirt sophomore Lamar Miller, should he elect to leave with two seasons of eligibility remaining, would also rank ahead of Pierce on my board. Pierce, however, due to his blend of size, speed and production throughout his career, would certainly compete with any other back in the country (including all of the seniors) as a potential second round pick.
Pierce is currently ranked by NFLDraftScout.com as the 10th best running back potentially available for the 2012 draft.