Dressed in a cherry jumpsuit with a white Temple “T” on the left side of his chest, junior quarterback P.J. Walker followed two police officers to the Owls’ usual pre-game “Fly-in,” this time in Boca, Raton Florida and palm trees in the background.
With white beats headphones around his neck and his black Under Armour duffle bag and red backpack strapped on his shoulders, Walker walked out in front of his teammates through the cheering crowd lining the path to FAU Stadium to face the University of Toledo in Tuesday’s Marmot Boca Raton Bowl.
After Walker entered through the black gates into the stadium followed by his teammates, and eventually stepped onto the wet field, the junior quarterback completed 23-of-42 pass attempts for 236 yards passing and one interception in Temple’s 32-17 season-ending loss to the Rockets.
“Start off the offseason the same way I finished this game this season,” Walker said of preparing to lead the Owls next season. “I felt like I went out there and competed at a high level today. I told the team at halftime. I told them I love them, and I’d do anything for them at the end of the day.”
Walker finished the season with 2,973 yards passing, 19 passing touchdowns and eight interceptions. He set Temple’s single-season records for passing yards and passing touchdowns and is the Owls’ career leader in passing touchdowns.
With the loss of 19 seniors, coach Matt Rhule said Walker needs to take control of the team in 2016, starting this offseason.
“It better be [his team],” Rhule said. “There’s a lot of work for that to happen in January and February and March. Everybody wants to be out front, but you have to do it everyday. You have to do it at 6 a.m. So, I’m very confident he will. He showed a lot of guts out there [Tuesday], getting hit and hit and hit and hit. He just kept playing.”
Senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich addressed Walker and several other members of the junior class, including running back Jahad Thomas and linebackers Stephaun Marshall and Avery Williams, in the locker room after the loss.
Matakevich’s message to his teammates was to finish what the team started this season.
The Owls won their first seven games but finished the season 3-4, going to the inaugural American Athletic Conference Championship game and the team’s first bowl game since 2011 but losing both.
“It’s their team now,” Matakevich said. “We sort of set a standard, and now it’s their job to just follow the process and keep everything going. And I know they will.”
After completing 53.3 percent of his passes and throwing 15 interceptions in his first full-year as the team’s starting quarterback during his sophomore campaign last year, Walker threw six fewer interceptions and completed 56.8 percent of his passes on 52 more attempts in 2015.
One of Walker’s nine interceptions this season came in the the fourth quarter of Tuesday night’s game as the Owls were driving in Toledo territory, trailing by 10 points.
“I felt like I’ve learned from a lot of the mistakes that I made throughout the season,” Walker said. “I made some bad mistakes during the season, but I’ve also come back and capitalized on the same plays. And the same mistakes that I’ve done negative of, I made a positive into when the same opportunity came.”
Matakevich said he is comfortable leaving the program in Walker’s hands next season.
“I’ve seen him play since he was a freshman,” Matakevich said. “I’ve seen him grow up, and it’s just, it’s literally day and night how much he’s grown. I mean he’s going to be the best quarterback in the country, I think next year. And he’s such a captain and a leader, and he’ll get that offense rolling and get the whole team.”
Owen McCue can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Owen_McCue