The Temple University football team is going back to the American Athletic Conference championship game for the second straight year after clinching the East Division title with a 37-10 win over East Carolina Saturday night.
The Owls improved to 9-3 overall and 7-1 in the conference and will travel to Navy next Saturday for the conference championship game. East Carolina fell to 3-9, 1-7.
Saturday’s win was the sixth straight for the Owls. Last season, Temple played in the conference’s first conference championship game but lost at Houston, 24-13.
“Being able to come back from where we were (at 3-3) and battle through adversity and not turn against each other, I’m really proud about that,” said Temple coach Matt Rhule. “We want to be relevant in the conference championship race every year, so to win the East side two years in a row, we’re pretty relevant.
“To do it back-to-back, it’s hard to repeat when everybody is aiming at you. Our players got better. It’s more about the journey and see them grow up before our eyes. That’s been the fun part for me.”
The Owls came into Saturday’s game off consecutive shutouts but that streak ended quickly as the Pirates marched 58 yards in 11 plays on the opening drive, capped by Jimmy Williams’ 13-yard touchdown reception.
But Temple didn’t take long to answer. A 44-yard pass from Phillip Walker to Adonis Jennings put the Owls on the 2 and Ryquell Armstead muscled his way in two plays later to tie the game.
Walker, who suffered an early ankle injury but stayed in the game, finished 12-for-20 for 158 yards. Walker became the first Temple quarterback to go over 10,000 yards in his career.
Jennings caught six passes for 100 yards as the main weapon, especially with wide receiver Ventell Bryant coming into the game banged up.
Bryant left the game late with a shoulder injury.
“I just did what I was trained to do, I go out every day in practice and try to make plays so it can happen in the game,” said Jennings. “With Ventell banged up, I got more reps than I usually do and I tried to take advantage of my opportunity. I feel I’m ready.
“It was great to hold that trophy up and share it with the seniors.”
Armstead then punched it in from a yard out to give Temple a 14-7 lead with just over two minutes left in the half. It seemed the Owls would take the slight lead into the half, but Praise Martin-Oguike had other ideas.
The Owls’ senior defensive end stripped quarterback Gardner Minshew and recovered the fumble when the ball bounced back up to him, giving Temple the ball on the Pirate 34.
Jahad Thomas then ran 28 yards to the 6 and three yards were tacked on for a personal foul against East Carolina. Thomas scored on the next as the Owls went into the break up 21-7 after what had been a tight first half.
Thomas added a 3-yard TD run in the third quarter to make it 27-7. It was the ninth time this season Thomas scored two touchdowns in a game.
The Pirates and Owls traded fourth-quarter field goals and Jager Gardner scored a late 14-yard TD run before the clock ran down. Temple held East Carolina wide receiver Zay Jones to seven catches for 61 yards after he came into the game with 151 receptions for 1,685 yards.
“He’s really a good player, seven catches for 61 yards I’ll take that all day,” said defensive coordinator Phil Snow. “You limit him, you’re limiting a lot of their offense.”
The victory allowed the Temple players to celebrate the division title at Lincoln Financial Field for a second straight season. This year, the Owls will be looking to add the conference crown that eluded them a year ago.
“This doesn’t feel different because we’ve been here before,” said senior defensive end Haason Reddick. “Winning the conference championship, that will feel different, to win that trophy and bring it back home for the fans.
“It was heartbreaking last year. We know what it feels like and the important thing is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”