Coach Matt Rhule likes his team’s situation.
The Owls (6-3, 4-1 American Athletic Conference) lead The American’s East Division and have a clear path to the conference championship if they win their final three games.
There isn’t much margin for error. South Florida also has a 4-1 conference record, but is in second place because of its loss to Temple on Oct. 21.
“If it was like, ‘Hey, you have the championship won,’ then you would have to worry about human nature. … But if you want to get down to the nuts and bolts of it, it’s like being in the NFL, being in the playoffs,” Rhule said. “You win the playoff game, you play the next week, you don’t win the playoff game, you go home.”
Temple’s next test is on the road Friday against Connecticut, a team that has lost five of its last six games, including three in a row. Huskies coach Bob Diaco announced at press conference on Tuesday that offensive coordinator Frank Verducci was demoted on Sunday to working with tight ends and defensive ends.
David Corley, formerly the running backs coach, will try to spark a Huskies offense that averages 18.3 points per game, last in The American and 126th out of 128 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Huskies averaged 15.3 points per game in their three losses from Oct. 15-29. With three wins, Connecticut needs to win out to attain bowl eligible status.
While the Huskies struggle running the ball, currently ranked No. 113 in Division I in rushing yards per game, their passing game has been more reliable. Redshirt-junior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs has more than 2,000 passing yards and thrown seven touchdown passes.
Shirreffs is also a mobile quarterback, which always gives Temple trouble, Rhule said. He is the team’s second-leading rusher and has two touchdowns on the ground.
Shirreffs’ favorite target has been senior wide receiver Noel Thomas Jr. He led Connecticut with 54 receptions last year and already has 83 catches and more than 1,000 receiving yards this year. Thomas is fifth among FBS receivers in yards and fourth in receptions per game.
The Owls will have to cover Thomas and the rest of Connecticut’s receiving corps with a depleted secondary. Rhule said redshirt-junior defensive back Artrel Foster and redshirt-sophomore defensive back Jyquis Thomas will probably be out for the game. He is prepared to use junior defensive back Cequan Jefferson and freshman Linwood Crump, and could even move junior defensive back Sean Chandler to corner from safety.
For Temple’s defense, one week ahead of the bye week, it’s bad timing.
“You wish it wasn’t going against one of the premiere wideouts in the conference, if not the country,” Rhule said.
Running the ball has been key for Temple in its three-game winning streak. The Owls have carried the ball at least 50 times in those games, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and scoring seven touchdowns.
Thee Huskies allow 125.3 yards rushing per game, which is No. 26 in the FBS and second in The American.
“Our work is cut out for us to find a way to manufacture some running game,” Rhule said. “We’ve been winning the games lately because we’ve been able to run the football and we’re getting 40 minutes time of possession. That’s not been our M.O. against Connecticut.”
The team’s win against Cincinnati on Saturday made them bowl eligible for the third straight season, but the Owls aren’t satisfied yet.
“I just want to go back to the championship and get another opportunity to be great again,” redshirt-senior linebacker Avery Williams said. “So this game means everything. Every game from now on is a championship game. So if we win this, we get another opportunity to play another week.”
Evan Easterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.