Temple beats No. 19 Navy to win AAC title

Temple beat Navy 34-10 on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland to win its first major conference title and clinch back-to-back 10-win seasons.

Temple beat Navy 34-10 on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland to win its first major conference title and clinch back-to-back 10-win seasons. GENEVA HEFFERNAN FOR THE TEMPLE NEWS

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland—With two minutes left in Saturday’s American Athletic Conference championship, offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas and the rest of the assistants up in the coaching box, made a mad dash for the elevator.

After getting off the elevator, Thomas and the others sprinted through the corridors at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, trying to make their way to the field before the game ended.

They didn’t want to miss what happened next.

When the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Owls rushed the field in celebration of Saturday’s 34-10 conference championship win against Navy—Temple’s first conference championship since winning the Middle-Atlantic title in 1967. Minutes later, the Owls huddled around Rhule and senior quarterback Phillip Walker, who was the game’s Most Outstanding Player, as they were presented with the championship trophy.

“It’s just a tremendous honor,” coach Matt Rhule said. “I’m just so blessed to coach these kids. They never faltered this year. They battled adversity, and I think we can say we’re one of the top teams in college football this year.”

During his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Rhule said that no team has tamed Navy’s triple-option offense, which is part of why the Midshipmen came into Saturday’s game ranked No. 19 in the College Football Playoff.

The Midshipmen were averaging 342 yards rushing per game, which ranked No. 2 in the Football Bowl Subdivision. They’d scored a combined 141 points in their past two games.

After losing to a high-powered Houston offense in the inaugural title game last year, Temple only allowed 168 yards rushing in this year’s win.

“We played hard, we played physical,” said redshirt-senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick, who had his first career interception. “We got off blocks. We made the tackles we were supposed to make. Just determination, understanding what we wanted to do today.”

Temple’s offense was just as effective. The Owls moved the ball efficiently in the first half, starting with its first possession. A 21-yard run by junior wide receiver Adonis Jennings on a jet sweep set Temple up in Navy territory.

Redshirt-junior wide receiver Keith Kirkwood dropped a pass on 3rd-and-7 that would have been a first down inside the red zone. Rather than having freshman kicker Aaron Boumerhi kick a 45-yard field goal into the wind, Temple went for it on fourth down. The Owls went right back to Kirkwood who made the play for the conversion. Senior running back Jahad Thomas ran for a 15-yard touchdown on the next play for the first score of the game.

After a failed fourth down conversion on Navy’s next drive, Temple took a 14-0 first-quarter lead on a 22-yard touchdown pass from Walker to redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Ventell Bryant.

Kirkwood added a 56-yard touchdown catch early in the second quarter to help Temple take a three-touchdown lead. Kirkwood ran a deep post route that he hadn’t even tried in practice this week, and Walker hit him in stride. The Owls went into halftime up 24-3 after following an interception by redshirt-senior defensive back Nate Hairston and a field goal with 22 seconds left.

“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.”

In Friday’s pregame press conference, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said senior quarterback Will Worth was “playing on an unprecedented level” and was on track to beat all of the records set by Keenan Reynolds, who was a sixth-round pick in the NFL draft.

Worth set the school’s single-season total offense record on Saturday at 2,595 yards to pass Reynolds, but didn’t play at all in the second half. Instead, he watched from the sideline on crutches as sophomore quarterback Zach Abey led the Midshipmen.

Abey stepped on the field for the first time with Navy trailing by 21 points with 10 minutes, 57 seconds left in the second quarter. He took a big hit from redshirt-senior linebacker Avery Williams on his first play as he made a pitch on an option play. Williams got flagged for targeting, which resulted in his ejection.

Abey led the Midshipmen on a 7-play touchdown drive late in third quarter to cut Navy’s deficit to 14. The big play of the drive was a 47-yard run by Abey on the first play from scrimmage. Abey made cuts in the open field to put the Midshipmen in the red zone and set up his own touchdown run six plays later.

Other than that, Temple’s defense stayed strong and held its opponent to 10 points or fewer for the fourth straight game.

“We really don’t practice for players,” junior defensive back Sean Chandler said. “We just wanted to go out there and dominate each and every play one play at a time. There wasn’t one player that we were focused on. We just wanted to play good defense.”

Temple’s victory helped the Owls win 10 games in back-to-back seasons. They’ve now reached double digit win totals three times in program history. The Owls also defeated their first Top 25 opponent of the season and handed Navy its first loss in Annapolis since Sept. 27, 2014.

“It feels, I mean, the one word that I could say is just incredible,” senior offensive lineman Dion Dawkins said. “Because it took four years and us just believing the process and getting off of the process and getting back on to finally get to this point.”

Owen McCue and Evan Easterling can be reached at sports@temple-news.com.

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