[youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqWVyv4ZIug” width=”560″ height=”315″]
AUDIO BY: GREG FRANK @g_frank6
WRITTEN BY: TOM HANSLIN @tomhanslin
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — It all started with a promise and a process–at least those were the two words Matt Rhule had preached.
In the eyes of the Temple football head coach, the program’s trophy cases weren’t quite filled when he arrived at the helm. Missing behind the glass was one last piece of hardware, a trophy that not only Rhule desired, but the university as well.
Rhule vowed to bring a conference championship to Philadelphia, and on his team’s second attempt at claiming it, the trophy finally landed in his arms.
After scoring three touchdowns on their first three possessions, along with a stifling defensive performance, the Owls coasted over the No. 19 Navy Midshipmen, 34-10, to win the 2016 American Athletic Conference Championship before 22,815 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
It was Temple’s (10-3, 8-1) first conference title since 1967, and its first in the modern-day Division I era.
“The promise has been fulfilled,” Rhule said after the on-field trophy presentation. “Today our players played like champions. It’s an honor to come here and play against the United States Naval Academy. I thought it was a tremendous team victory for us. We were extremely explosive from the start, and once we got the lead, we tried to control the clock.”
Temple’s offense wasted no time putting up points. After marching down to Navy’s own 27-yard line on their first possesion, the Owls stalled on three consecutive plays. But following a timeout from the Midshipmen, Temple’s offense remained on the field for fourth down, with quarterback Phillip Walker finding receiver Keith Kirkwood for a 12-yard gain. One play later, senior halfback Jahad Thomas took the carry on a 15-yard endaround touchdown to help the Owls draw first blood, 7-0, only five minutes in.
The general assumption was that quarterback Will Worth and Navy’s prolific triple-option offense would match on the scoreboard, but the Owls’ defense thought otherwise, forcing an early turnover on downs near midfield. It was the first time the Midshipmen didn’t score on their first possession since Oct. 29 against South Florida.
But then Navy’s hole was dug a little deeper. Temple scored six just three minutes later, traveling 59 yards on a six-play drive that ended with a 22-yard touchdown pass from Walker to receiver Ventell Bryant. It was Bryant’s fourth touchdown of the season.
In the final minutes of the first quarter, Navy began to produce a drive, but Temple safety Sean Chandler forced a fumble from Darryl Bommer that landed in the hands of linebacker Avery Williams. The Midshipmen entered the game ranked second-best in the nation in fewest turnovers.
Temple didn’t regress when the second quarter began. On a third and 10 from the Owls’ own 31, Walker connected with Kirkwood on a 56-yard missile, which helped increase their lead to 21-0 with 13:44 still remaining in the half.
Hope for a comeback seemed improbable for Navy, as Worth left the game with an apparent injury with 10 minutes remaining before halftime. Worth, who did not return and was replaced by backup Zach Abey, entered Saturday with an FBS-record 25 rushing touchdowns.
Before the half was over, the Midshipmen found their way into the red zone, settling for a 23-yard field goal made by Bennett Moerhing to make the score 21-3 with 5:12 left. With less than one minute remaining, Temple kicker Aaron Boumerhi entered for two field goal attempts. The first one from 50 yards out missed wide left, but after a quick interception from Nate Hairston on the next play, Boumerhi was sent out again, this time drilling a 48-yarder to make it 24-3 at halftime.
Navy’s first touchdown came with two minutes remaining in the third quarter, as Abey found the end zone on a one-yard rush to end a seven-play, 76-yard drive, trimming the Midshipmen’s deficit to 14.
But Boumerhi extended Temple’s lead with a 42-yard field goal with 10:17 left in the fourth quarter, and to cap off the Owls’ scoring, halfback Ryquell Armstead dashed for a 30-yard touchdown in the final ticks.
While Temple’s offense provided the flash, it was the defense that awed. The Owls allowed only 168 yards on the ground to Navy, which averaged 342 rushing yards per game this season.
“What we did tonight was not typical of the triple (option),” defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. “You don’t shut it down like we did tonight. We did a great job against the run game. Our players executed and they got off blocks. We were physical against their physicality. As you can see, we didn’t have very many people get hurt and they did, so we were hitting them pretty good and that’s a tribute to our players.”
For senior defensive end Haason Reddick, who joined Temple as a walk-on four seasons ago, the journey to the championship stage was even more rewarding.
“It means everything,” said Reddick, who earned his first-career interception in the fourth quarter. “We played hard, we played physical. I may not have made a lot of plays, but I made plays when it counted. For me, it’s indescribable. I didn’t get the chance to be a champion in high school, so to come here on a platform like this and lead as a senior with the season that I had, it means everything to me. Truly blessed.”
Walker finished 16-for-25 with 199 passing yards and two touchdowns, while Armstead led all backs in rushing yards with 76.
“I told Coach Rhule it was going to happen before I got here,” said Walker, who was awarded with the AAC Championship MVP award. “We knew what we wanted to do. During the beginning of the year, we were saying, ‘go 15-0, 14-0,’ and then we lost our first game and then everybody got shook up about what we wanted to do. But our goal was right in front of us and that was to win a conference championship. I just trusted the process and kept doing what I’ve been doing and go out there every day and bring my best effort and my energy. Hopefully everyone else followed.”
The Midshipmen were held under 20 points for the first time all season, and lost their quarterback in Worth to a season-ending broken ankle.
“The injuries took some steam out of us. To lose your starting quarterback and your offensive captain … that’s tough,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “It had nothing to do with schematics. They just played better than we did. It wasn’t a magic wand. They just beat the crap out of us.
“They hit us in the mouth, and we haven’t been hit in the mouth in a long time. We hit other people in the mouth. To Temple’s credit, they hit us in the mouth and we were dazed. It’s like they hit us with an overhand right early on and we couldn’t respond.”
With the victory, Temple has earned 20 wins in the last two seasons, with the opportunity to win 11 games in a season for the first time in history. Come Sunday, the Owls will learn of their bowl game destination, which could land them in a select number of cities, such as Birmingham, Miami, and possibly Annapolis.
But the conference championship stands alone to Rhule, who believes his team and the program have proved its legitimacy with seven consecutive wins.
“We are the sixth power conference. When you win this league, you should go to a New Year’s Six bowl,” Rhule said. “We should be a ranked team. Over the last half of the year, I would say we’re as hot as any team in country, and we should be playing in a New Year’s Six bowl.
“So blessed to be able to coach these kids. They’re wonderful wonderful people, and they never faltered this year. They battled through adversity, and I think we can say we’re one of the top teams in college football based on the way we’ve played.”