When he turned around after his postgame interview and saw which player was standing behind him, coach Matt Rhule couldn’t contain his excitement.
There was Temple’s curly-haired, guitar-playing fullback Nick Sharga, patiently waiting to talk to an ESPN reporter about Temple’s season-high rushing performance after Friday’s nationally-televised 46-30 win against South Florida.
“It was a cool experience,” Sharga said. “But I just go out in the game and try to do my best and hopefully things work out.”
Temple ran for a season-high 319 yards on Friday, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Rhule said the redshirt-junior fullback was the “key” to the Owls’ ground game.
Sharga was Temple’s only two-way player last season, seeing action at fullback and linebacker. This year, he has a simpler role sticking to just fullback.
Although he ran three times for nine yards on Friday, Sharga’s job most of the time is to find a defender and hit them — like he did on a game-changing play in the third quarter.
Followed by sophomore running back Ryquell Armstead, Sharga ran out to the right and set his sights on South Florida senior defensive back Johnny Ward.
Sharga pummeled Ward, knocking him to the ground and clearing the way for Armstead to sprint down the sideline on the way to a 42-yard touchdown run, which gave the Owls a lead they never relinquished.
“By the end of the third quarter, he has guys falling to their knees and they’re scared to make contact with him,” Armstead said.
On Friday, the defenders who avoided Sharga’s blocks had to deal with Armstead, who was lowering his shoulder and seeking contact just like his lead blocker. His 210-yard, two-touchdown performance was the first 200-yard game for a Temple back since 2012.
With the game already in hand late in the fourth quarter, he was dragging defenders on his back for first downs.
“Powering guys in the first and the second quarter, just coming in and headhunting basically, not shying away from contact,” Armstead said of what led to a successful game. “By the end of the third or fourth quarter, they don’t want to tackle me.”
Senior offensive lineman Dion Dawkins said the difference in Temple’s rushing attack on Friday was all 11 members of the offense playing together. Dawkins helped open up a hole for Armstead to the left side on the running back’s 76-yard touchdown run.
When everyone picks up their blocking assignment, then all the back has to do is make one or two guys miss for a big play, Dawkins said.
“It’s showtime from there on out,” he added.
Following a redshirt season in 2014, Sharga’s teammates voted him as one of the Owls’ toughest players last season, which is why he wears one of the team’s single-digit jerseys.
During his postgame press conference, Rhule said Sharga has been playing with a partially torn ACL this season, comparing him to the X-Men character Wolverine.
“He’s got regenerative powers or something,” Rhule said.
Sharga’s hard-hitting blocks fit right into the way Temple plays. Rhule emphasizes the ability to run the ball, specifically late in games. The Owls outrushed South Florida 84-24 in the fourth quarter.
“I think it really suits our play style well,” Sharga said of his physicality. “Our big thing is just finishing the game the best we can. I think just wearing teams down by running the ball at the end of the game really helps our offense out.”
The run game helped Temple in more ways than one on Friday. By running the ball, Temple controlled possession and kept South Florida’s offense, which came into the game averaging 44.1 points per game, from finding a rhythm. The Owls held the ball nearly twice as long as the Bulls.
“Part of trying to stop these offenses, is running the football,” Rhule said. “That possession time … that keeps a great offense off the field.”
Owen McCue can be reached at email@example.com or @Owen_McCue.