Two years ago, a 7-1 and nationally ranked Central Florida team came to Lincoln Financial Field to play a 1-9 Temple.
On its way to an American Athletic Conference Championship and a Tostitos Fiesta Bowl win that season, the Knights used a Hail Mary and a last-second field goal to tear the Owls’ hearts out and steal a 39-36 victory.
It is a game senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich will not let himself forget.
“I probably watched that and this past year’s game, probably about like five [times] each,” he said. “It just each time makes myself more and more upset with myself and the team, especially the defense, how we played. We just said, ‘We’re not going to let that happen again.’”
Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field, the Owls (6-0, 3-0 The American) beat the Knights 30-16. Unlike in year’s past Temple went into the game against an 0-6 Central Florida program as the favorite and the team with higher aspirations for postseason success.
Coach Matt Rhule said his players are learning to play with expectations, which have not been as high in recent years.
“Back when we were 1-5, 1-6, it was a lot easier to play,” Rhule said. “There’s no pressure. If you lost everyone expected you to lose. You could play free. Now what you’re seeing is a little bit of pressure. Pressure is a privilege. It means you’re doing things right each week. The pressure will mount, and they’ll have to handle it.”
For the first two years of The American’s existence, Central Florida was the standard of success in the conference.
After a Conference USA title one year prior to joining The American, the Knights took home at least a share of the conference crown in its first two years of existence. Prior to this season, Central Florida had gone to five bowl games in the last six years.
In Temple’s program history, which dates back to 1933, the Owls have never won a conference championship and have four bowl appearances—the last coming under coach Steve Addazio in 2010. The Owls became bowl eligible after Saturday’s win against the Knights.
“The bowl game, it’s fun,” said redshirt-senior defensive lineman Hershey Walton, who was redshirting when the team went to the New Mexico Bowl in 2010. “It’s an extra game to play. I tell everybody, this is where you want to go to. You want that extra game at the end of the season.”
While it has come earlier in years past, the six-win milestone is not new to the program. The Owls are bowl-eligible for the fifth time in seven seasons, during which time the team has gone to two bowl games.
“All the questions in the preseason were, ‘Hey Matt, do you think this team can be a bowl team?’” Rhule said. “That is what a lot of people asked me, and I said that was the expectation, so this is expected. We shouldn’t be too high about winning six games. It’s a great accomplishment, enjoy it. Now, what’s next?’”
The Owls’ other focus this season includes going to the conference championship game. Temple treated its game Saturday against the Knights like it was playing a “championship team.”
“The coaches were telling us, ‘This is a championship team,’” redshirt-freshman wide receiver Ventell Bryant said. “We have to be ready to play and make plays because this is a championship team, and they know how to handle games like this.”
Bryant said the win against a team like Central Florida, who has been at the top of the conference standings, was an important step for the team to accomplish its goal of winning The American’s championship.
“I believe so,” Bryant said. “We take every week game-by-game, one game at a time. We trust in our process. We trust in our preparation. We go out hard every week and come ready to play on the weekends.”
Owen McCue can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Owen_McCue.