Sports

Walker plays through pain to deliver AAC championship

Senior quarterback Phillip Walker played with an injured foot in Saturday’s conference title game.Walker plays through pain to deliver championship

After Saturday’s American Athletic Conference championship win against Navy,  senior quarterback Phillip Walker stood next to coach Matt Rhule around the 25-yard line at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Walker was already wearing a championship hat and T-shirt.

Before the season started, Walker said he wanted to be called “Phillip” instead of “P.J.” because Phillip sounded more mature. But he didn’t mind as his teammates chanted “P.J.” when he held up his Most Outstanding Player Award.

Four years earlier, Rhule and Walker both made promises that this day would come.

At his introductory press conference in December 2012, Rhule told Temple fans he would bring them a championship. Two months later, Walker signed his letter of intent to Temple and made Rhule the same promise.

“I told coach Rhule before I got here that it was going to happen,” Walker said of Temple’s first conference championship since 1967. “That was the process of me just trusting, to keep doing what I was doing and go out every day and bring my effort and energy every day and hopefully everyone else will follow.”

Senior quarterback Phillip Walker prepares to receive the Most Outstanding Player Award after Saturday’s win. GENEVA HEFFERNAN FOR THE TEMPLE NEWS

Senior quarterback Phillip Walker prepares to receive the Most Outstanding Player Award after Saturday’s win. GENEVA HEFFERNAN FOR THE TEMPLE NEWS

At last Tuesday’s press conference, Rhule said Walker was questionable for Saturday’s championship game. Walker entered the trophy room at Edberg-Olson Hall to talk to reporters after practice with a bulky gray walking boot on his right foot. He missed a drive during Temple’s division-clinching win against East Carolina on Nov. 26 after suffering the injury.

Still, Walker was insistent that he was going to play. He’d played through an injury before. In 2015, Walker separated his left shoulder in Temple’s season opener against Penn State and didn’t miss a game, posting career numbers throughout the rest of the season.

He played through pain again on Saturday, throwing for 199 yards and two touchdowns to help deliver the Owls a win.

“I was telling him, ‘They’re going to give you a shot and it’s going to hurt,’” senior offensive lineman Dion Dawkins said. “He’s like, ‘I don’t care, whatever it’s gonna take to win this game, I’m going to do it.’ P.J. was just bought in. He was in ‘just win’ mentality, so he didn’t want nothing to come in the way of us getting the championship.”

“P.J. was not missing one snap, one play of this game for his life,” Dawkins added.

Walker completed nine of his first 11 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns against Navy on Saturday. He hit redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Ventell Bryant for a 22-yard touchdown to go up 14-0.

Early in the second quarter, he tossed a 56-yard touchdown pass to redshirt-junior wide receiver Keith Kirkwood, who hauled in five catches for 96 yards and a touchdown on Saturday, to give Temple a three-touchdown lead.

“Since my first days here, P.J. has never quit,” Kirkwood said. “Even when he’s hurt, he’s still gonna play, no matter what. He could be sacked, banged up, he’s still going to make plays, and he trusts that he has great receivers to make plays. And we do that for him.”

Walker was also terrific on third down, especially on the Owls’ first drive. He hit junior wide receiver Adonis Jennings for four yards on 3rd-and-3 to start the drive. Walker found Kirkwood past the first down marker on 3rd-and-6 to move the chains again.

After Kirkwood dropped a nice throw by Walker on 3rd-and-7, Walker went right back to him on fourth down for the conversion, which set up Temple’s first touchdown of the game.

Almost as important were the throws he didn’t make. When the Owls took a large lead on Saturday, Walker didn’t force any passes into double coverage or take unnecessary risks. He didn’t throw an interception for the third straight game, and fifth time in six games. The Owls are 12-0 over the past two seasons when Walker doesn’t throw an interception.

“Offensively, we got off to an explosive start,” Rhule said. “[Walker] made some big-time throws. Once we got the lead we just tried to control the clock.”

The NCAA’s formula for passing efficiency rating takes into account pass attempts, completions, passing yards, touchdowns and interceptions to evaluate quarterbacks. Walker’s 140.9 passing efficiency rating ranks No. 41 in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Walker engineered a 70-yard comeback drive against Central Florida with 32 seconds left on Oct. 15, and since then he’s passed the ball much more efficiently.

During the past six games, Walker has completed 62 percent of his passes and thrown 10 touchdowns compared to two interceptions. His passing efficiency over that period is 164.4, which would be No. 9 in the FBS.

“He’s the quarterback of our team, leader of our offense,” redshirt-senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick said. “Since the first day I’ve seen Phillip throw the ball, I always knew the guy was special. … He’s got something in him. He wants to compete. He’s a great competitor, a great leader.”

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

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