Connor Reilly was on thin ice this week and he knew it.
“This week, I had kind of a short leash,” Reilly said. “I needed to produce points. [Coach Matt Rhule] said, ‘If you can’t produce, I’m going to put [freshman] P.J. [Walker] in.’ That was before the game, and we went three-and-out on the second drive. P.J. went in and P.J. moved the ball … He scored points at the end, so P.J.did his job.”
“Both of us kind of had a short leash,” the redshirt-junior added about himself and Walker. “Whoever could produce would be in the game, and whoever couldn’t was going to come out.”
While neither player could carry Temple to a win against No. 7 Louisville, Walker was the quarterback who produced. In the 30-7 loss, Walker went 10 for 19 with 182 yards, one touchdown and one interception, adding 33 rushing yards. Reilly went 3 for 7 with 25 yards in the two possessions he played. Rhule said after the game that Walker will “probably be [the starter] moving forward.”
“I made the decision last Sunday, told [Walker] I was probably going to play him for a series,” Rhule said. “I don’t lie to players, so I told him, ‘I can’t promise you anything. I might put you in the second or third series.’ And as we got out there, Connor did a nice job. He did some of the right things. I could tell with their pass rush, they have some guys who can rush the passer, so I wanted someone in there who could move.”
“So I just put P.J. in there for a series and I just liked the way it looked,” Rhule added. “In the second series he took us all the way down the field with his legs and with his arm, his decision making, and we missed the field goal. In that moment, I said, ‘Let’s just stay with the young guy and let him go.’”
Walker’s first in-game action at Temple came against Fordham on Sept. 14. He completed one pass for 13 yards and had three total pass attempts.
“P.J., he’s going to be something great in the future,” sophomore wide receiver Robby Anderson said. “Every day I look at him, and I really see that he’s going to be something special. Connor is too, they’re both great quarterbacks, but P.J. did good for his first real game playing.”
“It was decent, but it wasn’t good enough,” Walker said of his performance. “I could have played a lot better. Made a few mistakes. I should have been playing a lot better than I did.”
Walker rushed for 33 yards on 12 carries, but lost 32 yards on four sacks. When the sacks are discounted, he rushed for 65 yards on eight carries. He had three carries of 15 or more yards. Rhule said Walker’s mobility was a factor in choosing who would play. Reilly has not fully recovered from an injured knee suffered against Houston.
“If you go back to the Notre Dame game, I would say Connor did a great job moving the chains with his feet,” Rhule said. “He has not been able to do that as well … I felt like P.J. was ready to go. We’ve known along what P.J. was going to be. Just had to wait until he was ready and felt like he was ready. Connor’s been banged up. When you’re banged up, it’s hard to make the same amount of plays you made before.”
“[I’m] still going to be wearing the brace as a precaution,” Reilly said. “Hopefully this week I should be 100 percent, where I can run, but right now, P.J.’s the guy. He can move the ball with his feet. That is an added dimension. They have to cover him. They have to take him as a runner instead of just a passer.”
Walker’s most impressive play was a 58-yard strike to Anderson in the second quarter, the longest play the Owls have made this season.
“That feels real good,” Anderson said. “I wish I could have done more, I wish I could have scored. It felt good to make the big play, just contribute.”
“I knew Robby, with a lot of speed, could go out there and just run by [the safety],” Walker said. “I just put a pass somewhere where he could catch it and make a play.”
After the Fordham game, there was some debate about whether burning Walker’s redshirt was a good idea. Now the question is whether Walker will play for the rest of the season.
“I’ve been preparing all year as I was the starter,” Walker said. “That’s the way the coaches want me to prepare, so I just do what they tell me and my mindset is to prepare every week like a starter.”
Evan Cross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @EvanCross.