Last week’s second half collapse against Memphis trimmed the margin of error Temple has if it wants to go to back-to-back American Athletic Conference championship games.
At 1-1 in conference play, Temple is already looking up at Central Florida and South Florida in the division standings with matchups against the Knights and Bulls in its next two games.
Coach Matt Rhule doesn’t like to use the phrase, but if Temple wants to stay in control of its own destiny in The American’s East division, Saturday night’s game is indeed a “must win.”
“I live my life as a must win,” Rhule said. “Last week was a must win. I think we need to win, but if we didn’t win I’d still show up to work on Monday.”
Temple went 7-1 in The American last season to clinch the East division. The Owls’ lone loss came to South Florida, who finished 6-2 in conference after dropping games against West division opponents Navy and Memphis.
With the loss against Memphis, the Owls will most likely not having the luxury of dropping a game against the Knights on Saturday or the Bulls next week.
But if Temple wins its remaining six games, it guarantees the Owls a spot in the championship game.
“We have six games left,” Rhule said. “I told our seniors, ‘You win all six and you go to the conference championship game.’ … All of that is still there next week, so you better just find a way to win this week.”
The first step to claiming a conference crown will be finding a way to defeat Central Florida on the road Saturday night. After a winless 2015 season, the Knights looks like an improved team under first-year coach Scott Frost.
Central Florida (3-2) entered conference play with a 47-29 win against East Carolina on Oct. 1 before last week’s game against Tulane was rescheduled because of Hurricane Matthew.
The Knights are averaging more than 35 points per game and holding opponents to fewer than 25 points per game.
“They definitely turned that program around, and they’re doing some great things,” senior running back Jahad Thomas said.
A quick peek at the box score might suggest Temple handled a winless Central Florida team by two touchdowns at Lincoln Financial Field in last year’s 30-16 win, but the Owls trailed heading into the fourth quarter before Thomas sealed the game with two touchdowns of 20 or more yards.
Thomas ran for almost 200 yards and three touchdowns against Central Florida in last season’s win.
While the senior running back has yet to put up those kind of numbers in 2015, he’s still been a playmaker for the Owls. Since returning to the field in Temple’s third game at Penn State, Thomas has eight total touchdowns in four games.
On defense, the Owls held Knights quarterback Justin Holman to 72 yards passing and forced two interceptions last season.
Temple’s defense hasn’t looked quite the same as last year, but the unit’s first half performance against Memphis showed signs that it is coming around.
Temple held Memphis to three points in the first half before a few big plays spoiled the performance. Memphis used rushing touchdowns of 71 and 28 yards to pull away in the second half.
The Owls have been close in all three of their losses this year. Temple trailed by one heading into the fourth quarter against Army and trailed by seven heading into the fourth quarter against Penn State and Memphis.
But the Owls have not had success outscoring opponents in the game’s final 15 minutes, something Rhule hopes the team can change on Saturday.
Central Florida’s fast paced offense could once again test the Owls heading into the fourth quarter.
“We have to win the fourth quarter,” Rhule said. “We’ve always said since we’ve got here, ‘A fourth quarter shutout equals a win.’ … We’re challenging guys to step up.”
Owen McCue can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Owen_McCue