Jahad Thomas stood in the red-and-black painted end zone at Nippert Stadium, waiting for the opening kick of the third quarter in the Owls 34-26 victory against Cincinnati Saturday.
Cincinnati’s Andrew Gantz sent the ball through the air, and the junior running back positioned himself under the ball to field the kick.
Thomas cut to the left, broke two Bearcats’ tackles and sprinted 100 yards to give the Owls a 17-6 lead.
The former cornerback has totaled four rushes of 20 yards or more this season—including a 56-yard touchdown run Saturday—helping boost the Owls’ running attack, which ranked No. 115 out of 125 Football Bowl Subdivision teams last season.
“I thought Jahad played really well,” coach Matt Rhule said. “A lot of things were blocked really well, but at the same time he made some plays when there really wasn’t a play there. He bailed us out.”
Thomas, who set a new American Athletic Conference record with 342 all-purpose yards Saturday, had a career-high 193 rushing yards and one touchdown against the Bearcats. After two games, Thomas is third in the FBS in rushing with 328 rushing yards.
After making the transition to running back last summer, Thomas said a full season at running back in 2014 and an entire summer practicing in the backfield during camp in 2015 was key.
“He got his feet wet last year and now you can see the benefits of a full offseason understanding the offense,” Rhule said. “He’s become an impact player.”
Thomas also credits his success this season to the Owls’ new additions on offense—redshirt-senior wide receiver Robby Anderson and sophomore wide receiver Adonis Jennings. The two have a combined 12 catches for 59 yards and one touchdown.
“It’s going to be tough to put seven or eight guys in the box against us,” Thomas said after the team’s 27-10 win against Penn State. “I think [the offensive additions] are a big contribution to us running the ball.”
Last season, Thomas carried the ball 80 times for 384 yards. The Elizabeth, New Jersey native has 55 carries through two games this year. Thomas is also averaging 164 yards per game on the ground this season, compared to 32 yards per game last season.
Thomas is welcoming the increased workload this season.
“I want the ball as much as possible,” Thomas said following the Penn State game. “If it was up to me, I’d probably hand the ball off to myself. But it shows the work that we put in and how hard we train, so I can carry the ball 20-30 times a game.”
With less than three minutes left and a 34-26 lead, Thomas committed his lone turnover of the season—a fumble that allowed Cincinnati one more attempt to tie the game.
Following the fumble, senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich intercepted Bearcats junior quarterback Gunner Kiel’s throw in the end zone with 13 seconds remaining, preserving the Owls’ victory. The defense allowed 557 yards of offense but forced five turnovers and held the Bearcats’ offense to two field goals in the red zone.
“The game was over and Jahad let that ball get out of his hands, but I’m so proud of our defense,” Rhule said. “[The defense] said, ‘Jahad, we’ve got you.’”
More than half of the team’s 613 total yards this season have come from its running backs and the team is averaging 182 yards rushing per game this season.
Running the football was a point of emphasis heading into the season.
“I was guilty of getting caught in the wave of no huddle offense,” offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield said after a practice in August. “But it’s not my mental makeup. It’s not coach Rhule’s mental makeup. It’s not the Temple makeup. … We are making a commitment to running the football and to be a physical and explosive football team.”
Michael Guise can be reached at email@example.com, 215.204.9537, or on Twitter @Michael_Guise.