The Temple Owls don’t want to leave anything to chance.
After all, this is a team that won six games a season ago for a rare occurrence to become bowl eligible only to be skipped over for postseason play.
That spawned the team’s 2015 motto of “Leave no doubt.” And now with the season on the line coming down the stretch, the Owls are making sure they remain in control.
Temple shook off its recent struggles to pull away from Memphis for a 31-12 win on Saturday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field (see Instant Replay).
With the victory, the Owls (9-2, 6-1 American Athletic Conference) kept control of their own destiny in the AAC. A South Florida loss to Central Florida on Thanksgiving or a Temple win over UConn in next Saturday’s regular-season finale clinches the East Division for the Owls and puts them in the AAC championship game.
“I felt like we came into this game prepared and with a mentality that we were going to play our best football,” said quarterback P.J. Walker, who threw two touchdowns to reach 50 for his career and surpass Temple legend Henry Burris for the program’s all-time record. “This game right here was the definition of playing for one another.”
“I told the team this would be its greatest accomplishment, those seniors this would be their greatest accomplishment,” Temple head coach Matt Rhule said.
“I don’t know if I can philosophically explain it well enough. At the end of the day, we’ve never really been able to win this game. We’ve won a lot of games, but the game where everyone is watching [and saying] ‘OK, can they win the championship game?’ We get distracted. Last week was a blessing in many ways because we were locked in and focused.”
That heightened level of focus was particularly evident on defense. After getting gashed for 84 points and 953 combined total yards in the last two games, the Owls’ D returned to its usual stout form Saturday.
The bounce-back effort ended up being a necessity for Temple, as the Owls’ defense was thrust into critical situations early. Temple turned it over on each of its first three possessions in the game (fumble, interception, turnover on downs), but the defense only allowed a pair of field goals off of those circumstances.
“As an offense, you can’t just go three and out or take a field goal. You have to drive down the field at least once or twice and punch it in,” Memphis quarterback and projected first-round pick, Paxton Lynch, said.
That set the tone for the day, as Temple held Lynch and the Tigers (8-3, 4-3 AAC) to 232 total yards of offense and four field goals.
Not bad against a team that’s slotted at No. 21 in the College Football Playoff rankings and came into Saturday sixth in the nation in scoring with 43.7 points per game.
“That’s Temple defense right there,” said linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who had 11 tackles to become just the seventh player in NCAA history to post at least 100 tackles in four straight seasons. “We had it in us all along. Unfortunately, the previous two weeks you got to give those other teams credit. They came out ready to play, but we just weren’t clicking. This week was big. We said we’ve got to get back to our fundamentals, get back to doing what we’ve been doing all year and that’s playing hard-nosed, tough football for four quarters and being the more physical team. That’s what we did today.”
“They just had two bad games,” Walker said of the defense. “They showed today that they are that dark side defense.”
Even with the defense playing lights out, Memphis was still within reach thanks to Temple stalling out time and again on offense. Despite the Owls reaching the end zone twice in the first half, they could never develop a real rhythm.
That carried over into the third quarter, which allowed Memphis kicker Jake Elliot to connect on his fourth field goal of the day to bring the Tigers within 14-12.
With the crowd murmuring with nervousness, TU’s offense was finally able to get the drive it needed to open up the floodgates. The Owls balanced runs and passes to move the ball all the way to the Tigers’ 13-yard line to close out the third quarter. To open the fourth, the Owls ran an end-around with tight end Kip Patton, who received a monster block on two defenders from fellow TE Saledeem Major, to get into the end zone.
Temple followed that up with a 13-play, 62-yard drive on their next possession that took 7:59 off the clock and resulted in an Austin Jones field goal.
“We felt like Memphis was getting banged up and guys were coming in and out of the game,” Rhule explained. “We felt like we were wearing them down and I think we finished with over 200 yards rushing. If there is a negative it was our offense on third down. I thought we ran the ball well all game. It’s a cumulative effect throughout the game.”
To put a cap on things, Walker, who finished the day with 261 yards passing, found a rumbling Major for a 19-yard TD to give him the school’s all-time record.
“It means a lot but you have to think about the guys around you giving you the opportunity to make it happen,” he said. “You have to thank the O-line for protection, teammates for making plays and just give them most of the credit and thank God for the opportunity.”
Now the Owls get the opportunity to finish the job on their own terms and reach the American Athletic Conference title game.
Rhule wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I showed them what the 2011 team with coach (Steve) Addazio, they were 5-4 and they knew they needed to get to seven or eight wins,” he said. “They had a great group of seniors there – Adrian Robinson, Morkeith Brown and all those kids went out and beat Miami of Ohio … beat them at the end of the game, very similar [to today] and we won four straight and finished 9-4 that year and won a bowl game for the first time since 1979.
“This was that kind of moment for me. Are we gonna do it or not? I don’t want to slide into a championship game. I don’t want someone else to lose. It’s like when USF won last night, it was almost exhilarating. This is what it is, man. This was a playoff game today. This was a championship-caliber game today. You have to feel like you can win those and we won it the way we play, which is what I liked.”