Sports

Temple heads back to AAC Championship

Temple’s 37-10 win against East Carolina on Saturday sent the Owls to their second straight American Athletic Conference Championship.

Go to a bowl game. Compete for a conference championship.

Those have been the goals for the football program for the past two seasons. Coach Matt Rhule has repeated them at almost every press conference since then.

Temple surprised teams by representing the American Athletic Conference East Division in the conference championship game last year, when the conference coaches predicted they’d finish third in the division.

After Saturday night’s 37-10 win against East Carolina, the Owls are in the same position again. But this time, the back-to-back East division champions didn’t sneak up on anybody.

“It’s hard to repeat when everyone is kind of aiming at you,” Rhule said. “While I’d love to go undefeated in the conference, I think going 7-1 both years, I think that’s a challenge and that shows that our players got better.”

The Owls enter the American Athletic Conference title game much differently this year.

Last year, Temple got out to a 7-0 start before finishing the season regular season 3-2. The Owls lost 24-13 to Houston in the conference championship game and lost to the University of Toledo 32-17 in the Marmot Boca Raton Bowl to finish their season.

Senior quarterback Phillip Walker celebrates the Owls’ second consecutive American Athletic Conference East Division title after their 37-10 win against East Carolina on Saturday. HOJUN YU FOR THE TEMPLE NEWS

Senior quarterback Phillip Walker celebrates the Owls’ second consecutive American Athletic Conference East Division title after their 37-10 win against East Carolina on Saturday. HOJUN YU FOR THE TEMPLE NEWS

This year, the Owls got off to a 3-3 start before winning their last six games to clinch the division. They’re playing their best football of the season, having outscored opponents 123-23 in their past four contests.

“It’s like the season flip-flopped,” redshirt-senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick said. “Last year we were on a roll and toward the end it got shaky. This year, it was shaky at first and we got better as the season went on. That’s the best thing about it. Any time a team is getting better throughout the season, you know that you got something special.”

The trip to Houston was unkind to the Owls last year. Houston, which later defeated Florida State University in the Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl, ran for 233 yards and three touchdowns in the win. Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. finished with 148 yards on the ground and two rushing touchdowns.

Temple outgained Houston 385-339 but turnovers on its first two drives of the game dug Temple a hole. Senior quarterback Phillip Walker, then a junior, tossed an interception on the fourth play from scrimmage and Robby Anderson fumbled on the next drive.

“I don’t think last year we weren’t ready to play,” Rhule said. “If you look at what we did against Houston compared to everybody else at the time, that Houston team was unreal. They did it to Florida State, they did it to Navy the week before. We played them as well as anybody.”

There will be no chance at revenge against the Cougars, but facing Navy presents another shot at redemption.

The Midshipmen ran for 487 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-24 win against Temple in September 2014.

Navy, which runs a triple-option offense, has the No. 2 rushing offense in the Football Bowl Subdivision this season at 342 yards per game. The Midshipmen have won four games in a row, including a 66-31 win against East Carolina and a 75-31 romp of Southern Methodist in their past two contests.

The Owls struggled with the triple-option in their season-opening game against Army. The Black Knights ran for 329 yards and four touchdowns in Temple’s 28-13 loss.

“It’s like a second chance to redeem ourselves against a triple-option team,” Reddick said. “Next week we’ll be preparing for that. As of right now, we just want to soak in that win, enjoy it until it’s time to start getting ready for next week. East champions, two times, back-to-back is a great feeling.”

Owen McCue can be reached at owen.mccue@temple.edu or on Twitter @Owen_McCue.

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