Tuesday morning’s rainy practice on the turf at Chodoff Field reminded senior linebacker Jarred Alwan of his days in high school and youth football.
Alwan and the rest of the Owls will play in the most important game of the season in Saturday’s American Athletic Conference championship against Navy, the No. 20 team in the Associated Press Top 25.
Navy will host Saturday’s game at noon at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium as it tries to win its first conference championship and record the first back-to-back 10-win seasons in program history. The Midshipmen spent 134 years as independents before joining The American for the 2015 season. Navy has won four straight games and won all five of its home games this season, extending its home winning streak to 15 games, tied with Houston for best in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The last time the Midshipmen lost a home game was Sept. 27, 2014.
Temple returns to the conference championship for the second straight year. The Owls lost 24-13 to Houston last year. Temple turned the ball over on its first two drives and Cougars’ quarterback Greg Ward Jr. ran for 148 yards and two touchdowns. Temple didn’t get any sacks or force any turnovers in the game.
“I don’t want to say it’s so much redemption, but we know where we failed at last year and of course we learned from our mistakes,” redshirt-senior defensive lineman Avery Ellis said. “We’re just trying to move forward this year and make it better.”
The Owls’ defense struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks last season in losses to the University of Notre Dame and South Florida, but contained high-scoring offenses on the team’s six-game winning streak.
South Florida’s junior running back and quarterback tandem of Marlon Mack and Quinton Flowers combined for 320 rushing yards and three touchdowns against the Owls in 2015, but only rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns on Oct. 21. The Bulls had the eighth-best rushing offense leading up to their matchup with the Owls.
On Saturday, Temple will face the second-best running attack. The Midshipmen are averaging 61 points per game through their last three games and have scored more than 60 points in back-to-back games for the first time since 1917. Navy only punted on two drives in the entire month of November.
In Saturday’s 75-31 win against Southern Methodist, Navy became the first school in FBS history to have two quarterbacks run for more than 100 yards. Senior Will Worth ran for 107 yards and sophomore Zach Abey ran for 111.
The Midshipmen have four players with 400 or more rushing yards, including Worth, who has 25 rushing touchdowns and leads the team with 1,181 yards. Worth also has 1,363 passing yards and eight touchdowns through the air.
“He’s physical, he’s elusive, extremely accurate quarterback,” coach Matt Rhule said of Worth. “He throws the ball really well. When it’s not there you see him scramble and make plays so he’s added a dimension to them that I think has made them more dangerous.”
Navy runs a triple-option offense, just like Army West Point, which defeated the Owls 28-13 in the season-opener. The Black Knights ran for 329 yards and four touchdowns, led by sophomore running back Andy Davidson’s 121 yards and two touchdowns. Davidson gashed the Owls’ defensive line with the fullback dive to earn a career-high in yardage.
“In Army, I don’t think I played my blocks as well,” senior defensive lineman Averee Robinson said. “Like some of the times I was letting the blocks destroy me a little bit to be completely honest, and I’m not going to be able to do that in Navy. Because if I do that, then the ball is probably going to hit for a touchdown because they’re a machine. That’s the type of team they are.”
“I think we weren’t expecting a fight [against Army], and this game we definitely got to expect a fight until the end,” Alwan added.
After a 3-3 start, Temple’s defense is Top 25 in the FBS in rushing yards allowed, third in total defense, 10th in scoring defense and second in passing yards allowed.
The Midshipmen will question the Owls’ manhood, redshirt-senior defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike said after the Owls’ 37-10 win against East Carolina on Saturday.
The last time Temple played Navy was in September 2014, when the Owls allowed 487 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns in a 31-24 loss.
Redshirt-senior linebacker Stephaun Marshall and junior defensive back Sean Chandler started in that game two years ago. Several members of the current Owls’ defense also played, including Alwan, Robinson, Martin-Oguike, redshirt-senior linebacker Avery Williams and redshirt-senior defensive back Nate Hairston.
“We struggled a little bit trying to get them out of third down territory, like third and short,” said Ellis, who was on the team in 2014, but didn’t play against Navy. “So that’s a big emphasis this week, making sure it’s not 3rd-and-1, 3rd-and-2 more like 3rd-and-6 and seven.”
Rhule said the Owls need to control the clock on offense and make the most of their possessions to win the game. Temple has the fifth-highest time of possession in the FBS, but Navy isn’t far behind at No. 20.
Senior quarterback Phillip Walker is nursing a foot injury he sustained in the East Carolina game. He played the entire game except for at the end of the fourth quarter in the blowout win. He wore a walking boot on his right foot after Tuesday’s practice. Rhule said he is questionable for the game.
Sophomore running back Ryquell Armstead, who leads the team with 13 rushing touchdowns, is “doubtful at best,” Rhule said.
Walker said he is taking less reps in practice and so he can be ready for Saturday’s game. He added that redshirt-freshman Logan Marchi and redshirt-sophomore Frank Nutile have been splitting first-team reps under center in practice.
Walker doesn’t anticipate having to score 40 or more points to win.
“I think our defense is going to do a great job. …Us seniors, we ain’t going back to another college AAC championship, so that’s it for us and I think the young guys around us don’t want to let us down either,” Walker said. “They’re going to go out there and play for us and the same way we’re going to out there and play for them.”
Evan Easterling can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.