Temple football headed to third straight bowl

For the seventh time in the past nine seasons, Temple is bowl eligible after Saturday’s win.

Redshirt-senior cornerback Mike Jones celebrates a play during the Owls’ 28-24 loss to Connecticut on Oct. 14 at Lincoln Financial Field. | GENEVA HEFFERNAN / FILE PHOTO

Temple is bowl eligible for the fourth year in a row for the first time in program history. The Owls’ seniors are the all-time winningest class in school history, surpassing the class of 2011’s 31 wins.

Coach Geoff Collins wanted his team to generate more turnovers heading into Saturday’s matchup against Tulsa.

Temple (6-6, 4-4 American Athletic Conference) entered the game ranking near the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision in turnovers per game. Senior safety Sean Chandler caught an interception — Tulsa third-string sophomore quarterback Will Hefley III’s third turnover of the game — with less than a minute to go in Temple’s 43-22 win at H.A. Chapman Stadium in Oklahoma.

After Chandler’s 49-yard return, redshirt-junior defensive lineman Freddie Booth-Lloyd drenched Collins with a celebratory bath of ice water from a cooler on the sideline. It signified the official salvage of a season once on the brink of being lost.

Temple had to do a lot of self-reflection after its overtime loss to Army West Point on Oct. 21. The Owls allowed the triple-option offense to pass its way to a game-tying touchdown the week after they lost to a UConn team they were favored to beat by 10 points. They had lost four of their past five games.

Now Chandler and the rest of the seniors will have “bragging rights” when they return to Edberg-Olson Hall to visit the football program as alumni, redshirt-senior defensive lineman Sharif Finch said.

“It would mean a lot,” Finch said on Nov. 21. “It would just show that I left my legacy here. Like when I was here, I did something with my time, and the seniors as well.”

As part of the senior class’ 32 wins, the upperclassmen contributed to back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2015 and 2016. Those 20 wins were preceded by a six-win season in 2014 that ended without a bowl game. Redshirt seniors like Finch and fellow defensive lineman Jullian Taylor experienced a two-win campaign in 2013, Temple’s first season under former coach Matt Rhule.

Younger players like sophomore linebacker Shaun Bradley, who has started all 12 games and leads Temple in tackles, hadn’t “faced a lot of the pain” the seniors did before this season’s close losses, Collins said.

“Obviously, we hate that we had to go through that, losing some really close games that we know we should have been in position to win,” Collins said on The American’s weekly coaches’ teleconference on Nov. 20. “But the level of pain that’s associated with that, in some way it’s great for a young team to go through that to make sure moving forward we don’t experience that again.”

Temple did what it needed to do to “send the seniors out the right way,” as Collins and redshirt-junior quarterback Frank Nutile frequently said during the final stretch of the season. Temple closed its season winning three of its last four games with its only blemish coming against a ranked Central Florida team that will play Memphis for the conference title on Saturday.

Temple won’t play to defend its 2016 conference title, but the team and its seniors have a chance to do something the Owls couldn’t do last year or in 2015. Temple hasn’t won a bowl game since the 2011 New Mexico Bowl. Before that game, the Owls hadn’t won a bowl game since the 1979 Garden State Bowl.

The American has tie-ins to seven bowls, and seven teams in the conference are bowl eligible.

CBS Sports and ESPN projected Temple to play in the Boca Raton Bowl against a Conference USA school on Dec. 19, while Sporting News projected it to play in the Gasparilla Bowl against a Conference USA opponent.

No matter where Temple gets placed on Selection Sunday this week, the Owls will have the advantage of getting extra practices. The NCAA allows teams that qualify for bowl games to have up to 20 hours per week of practice and athletic activities between the end of the regular season and their bowls.

Collins wants to “build elite depth at every position,” and the extra practices can help develop those who haven’t played this year. He touted the progress of freshman walk-on defensive back Josh Allen last week and said he hopes to add depth by adding up to 10 early enrollees in January. One of them will be Trad Beatty, a left-handed quarterback from South Carolina rated as a three-star recruit by Rivals.com.

Temple will get to play in a bowl game, and it will have a chance to make progress toward Collins’ goal of creating “elite depth,” but fans can only wonder what could have been of the season if the Owls had won any of the three games it lost by one score.

Temple might not be playing to defend its conference title this weekend, but the young players have continued to develop.  And that might be the most important outcome of this season as Collins works to return Temple to the “top-25 championship program” he inherited.

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