Temple clinches spot in AAC title game with win against East Carolina

The Owls scored 27 straight points in their 37-10 win against East Carolina on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field to win the American Athletic Conference’s East Division and claim a spot in the conference title game.

Sophomore running back Ryquell Armstead scores the first of his two touchdowns in the Owls' 37-10 victory against East Carolina on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field. The win clinches the American Athletic Conference's East Division and gives Temple a spot in the conference championship game for the second straight year. HOJUN YU FOR THE TEMPLE NEWS

With one minute, 57 seconds left in the second quarter, East Carolina’s offense looked poised to score points before halftime. Sophomore running back Shawn Furlow returned freshman kicker Aaron Boumerhi’s kickoff 45 yards to the 50-yard line and the Pirates had all three of their timeouts.

On the first play from scrimmage, redshirt-senior defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike strip sacked sophomore quarterback Gardner Minshew and recovered the fumble. Senior running back Jahad Thomas scored ran 28 yards inside the Pirates’ 10-yard line on the next play, juking out defenders with quick cuts.

Thomas carried the ball three yards into the end zone on the next play to score the Owls’ third straight touchdown. The Owls scored 27 unanswered points to defeat East Carolina 37-10 on Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Temple closes out the year on a six-game winning streak.

Temple (9-3, 7-1 American Athletic Conference) had to win the game to clinch The American’s East Division title because of South Florida’s win against Central Florida earlier in the day. Temple will play in back-to-back conference championship games when it faces Navy next Saturday at noon in Annapolis, Maryland.

“Nobody believed we were going to win this championship at the beginning of the year, but we did though,” senior quarterback Phillip Walker said. “We lost our first game and then lost our third game and our goal was still right in front of us. …We won the east side now, we just have to get prepared for next week.”

Only 58 seconds before Thomas’ touchdown made it 21-7, sophomore running back Ryquell Armstead scored his second touchdown of the game to make it 14-7. Armstead also scored with 7:38 left in the first quarter to tie the game at seven. His first touchdown was a 2-yard run and his second one was a 1-yard score.

Junior wide receiver Adonis Jennings set up Armstead’s first touchdown with a 43-yard kickoff return and a 44-yard catch down the right sideline on the third play from scrimmage to move the Owls to the Pirates’ 2-yard line.

Walker and Jennings clicked all night long. Jennings had two catches for 35 yards on the Owls’ fourth scoring drive, which ended with a 3-yard run by Thomas with 1:21 left in the third quarter. Jennings finished with six catches and 100 yards to lead the Owls. His yardage total is a career-high and the most since his 51 yards in the Owls’ win against the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in September.

“I thought Adonis was just so huge tonight,” coach Matt Rhule said. “Just kind of throwing that ball out there one on one and making some guys miss.”

Temple fell behind 7-0 after Pirates’ opening drive. It was the first points Temple’s defense allowed since the second quarter of the game against Cincinnati on Oct. 29, breaking a 10-quarter span.

Furlow set up East Carolina in good field position with a 37-yard kickoff return. Senior wide receiver and running back James Summers had five straight carries for 24 yards on the drive. The Pirates converted all three opportunities on third down before Minshew hit senior wide receiver Jimmy Williams on a 13-yard touchdown hookup.

The Pirates had a chance to break the scoreless drought with 7:07 left in the third quarter. Senior kicker and punter Davis Plowman’s 41-yard field goal attempt missed the mark. Plowman’s 41-yard field goal with 12:46 left in the fourth quarter finally ended a stretch of 42:06 without points for East Carolina.

The Pirates generated 94 total yards of offense in the first quarter, 72 of which through the air. Minshew completed 8-of-11 attempts in the first quarter, hitting four different targets.

East Carolina only had two yards of total offense in the entire second quarter. The Owls had 3.5 tackles for loss in the quarter and allowed negative six rushing yards.

Redshirt-senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick had 1.5 tackles for loss to bring his season total to 21.5. He finishes the regular season one tackle for loss shy of Dan Klecko’s single-season record set in the 2002 season.

Martin-Oguike had 16 tackles for loss yards and redshirt-senior linebacker Avery Williams led the team with eight tackles.

The Pirates entered play averaging 348.5 passing yards per game, good for fifth in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Senior wide receiver Zay Jones came into play averaging 13.7 catches per game, which ranked best in Division I. He broke the single-season receptions record with a catch in the third quarter, but only had seven catches for 61 yards.

“He’s a great player, but we really just played our basic defense against him,” Williams said. “We put [redshirt-senior defensive back] Nate Hairston in against him man-to-man and he shut him down every time he played man-to-man with him and that was just a beautiful thing to watch.”

The Owls lost the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship game in Houston last year, but return as a more experienced squad. The team’s veterans are looking to lead the Owls to victory this time around.

“The guys that were here last year we just got some experience knowing what it’s like to be in that big game,” Hairston said. “Knowing what it’s going to take to win, so the guys that were juniors last year, guys like me and Haason, we know now what it takes to get that championship.”

Evan Easterling can be reached at evan.easterling@temple.edu or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.

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