Before walking onto Chodoff Field for Friday’s practice, the Owls sat inside the locker room at Edberg-Olson Hall with the televisions tuned to ABC.
As the players prepared for their game Saturday against Connecticut, Navy and Houston were playing for the chance to represent the American Athletic Conference’s West Division and host the inaugural conference championship game.
After the Cougars’ win against the Midshipmen and the Owls’ 27-3 victory Saturday against UConn at Lincoln Financial Field, the two programs will meet Dec. 5 at John O’Quinn Field at TDECU Stadium for The American’s conference championship.
“I want to see us play big in big moments and answer the call in big moments, and I thought we did that,” coach Matt Rhule said. “[UConn] beat Houston [Nov. 21], and I thought our guys came out after an emotional win last week and played like champions.”
Temple, which claimed The American’s East Division with a 7-1 conference record, was in a must-win scenario Saturday.
If the squad lost to the Huskies, South Florida would have represented the East Division by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker.
“I was proud of our guys that we won this game,” Rhule said. “It was a championship game. Winning the East is a big deal to us. To have a chance to be in the first ever [championship] game is a big deal.”
For the second consecutive game, the Owls’ defense held its opponent without an offensive touchdown. Temple also held the Huskies to 138 yards of total offense, the Huskies’ lowest total yards of the season.
In the team’s last two games, the Owls’ defense allowed 15 combined points and 370 yards of total offense after allowing a combined 108 points and 1,420 yards of total offense in games against Notre Dame, Southern Methodist and South Florida.
“It was doing your 1/11th,” senior defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis said. “Defenses let up big plays when guys jump out of their gap to make a play.”
Saturday’s win also gave the Owls their first 10-win regular season in program history. If the Owls win Saturday, Rhule—who joined Wayne Hardin as the only Temple coaches to win double-digit games—will be the first coach in school history to win 11 games.
Rhule is also looking to secure the program’s first conference title since claiming the Middle Atlantic Conference title in 1967.
If the Owls win Saturday, they are eligible to be selected by the College Football Playoff Selection Committee for the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl or the Vizio Fiesta Bowl, two of the six featured games for Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, known as the “New Year’s Six.”
“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs,” junior running back Jahad Thomas said. “We’ve been through a 2-10 season. We are playing for something that is real special and just knowing we want more than this. This was a great season, but this is not the end.”
Houston (11-1, 7-1 The American) comes into Saturday’s title game averaging 42 points per game, No. 8 out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, and 499.3 yards of total offense per game, No. 15 in the FBS.
In the Cougars’ 12 regular season games, junior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. averaged 208.5 yards passing per game and 74.4 yards rushing per game. He also scored 33 total touchdowns.
“They have a great defense and a great offense,” junior quarterback P.J. Walker said. “We have to go out there and compete at a high level. We know they have a lot of great talent out there.”
In the 11 games that Ward started this season, Houston averaged 44 points per game and did not score fewer than 33 points.
Last season, Ward and the Cougars defeated Temple 31-10 at TDECU Stadium Oct. 17, 2014. Houston totaled 439 yards of total offense and 23 first downs, compared to the Owls’ 11. Temple also turned the ball over four times.
“They got us last year,” Matakevich said. “They were a more physical team, and we will see what happens this year.”
Michael Guise can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Michael_Guise.
Correction: Temple’s first conference championship in 1967 was while the team was in the Middle Atlantic Conference. The story originally said the Mid-American Conference.