WRITTEN BY: TOM HANSLIN @tomhanslin
PHILADELPHIA — For the second consecutive season, Temple football will be playing in the American Athletic Conference Championship game. And, once again, it’ll take place on the road.
After clinching the AAC’s East Division last Saturday with a 27-10 win over East Carolina, the Owls (9-3) have shifted their focus to the No. 19 Navy Midshipmen (9-2), which secured the West division and its first trip to the title game. Both Temple and Navy finished with identical conference records (7-1), but home field was decided by the conference’s first tiebreaker, which defers to the College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings.
With a victory at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland this Saturday afternoon, Temple would be winners of 20 games in the last two seasons, becoming a legitimate candidate for a bid to the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Jan. 2. It would also be the Owls’ first conference championship trophy since 1967.
“To these kids, it would be everything,” Temple head coach Matt Rhule said following practice on Tuesday. “They already have other things, but this is something tangible to look back on. And for the ones who came before, to feel like they’re part of this. I need to have things happen for me first, before I can kind of get perspective after the fact.
“Winning the game does not signify anything about where the program’s been built to. We’ve come a long way. That’s a credit to many, many people that have sacrificed for all this. Now we’re playing on national TV for a championship. They can be really proud of that. But we’re going to come back next year and try to do the same thing. It’s a never-ending process. You have to enjoy the process to enjoy the results.”
About Temple: Over the course of three weeks, Rhule has stated that his team’s moment of clarity came following a heartbreaking 34-27 loss at Memphis in Week 6 which brought Temple’s record to 3-3. Since falling to the Tigers on Oct. 7, Temple hasn’t lost a single game, as a six-game winning streak has placed the Owls back into the conference championship. Despite Temple’s defensive rank of third-best in the country, injury concerns have surfaced on the offensive side. During his weekly post-practice press conference, Rhule listed halfback Ryquell Armstead (undisclosed) as doubtful to play on Saturday, while quarterback Phillip Walker (ankle) and receiver Ventell Bryant (shoulder) are considered questionable. Walker was seen wearing a walking boot on his right foot following practice on Tuesday, but believes he will be available to play. While Walker’s injury doesn’t appear to be as serious, Armstead’s status seems more ambiguous. The sophomore scored twice in Temple’s win against East Carolina, but re-aggravated a preexisting injury that kept him off the field two weeks ago versus Tulane. As for Temple’s defense, the goal will be stop Navy’s potent triple-option offense, which averages 342 rushing yards per game (2nd-best in nation).
“When playing the triple-option, it’s all about being tough and disciplined,” said Temple defensive end Praise Martin-Oguike, the reigning AAC defensive player of the week. “When we played Army, we also missed a lot of assignments.”
Temple senior halfback Jahad Thomas will likely receive the bulk of the carries, and realizes that the Owls’ ground game will have to match Navy’s at best.
“I think running the ball more has taken the pressure off [Walker] and the offensive line,” Thomas said. “You can also see in the fourth quarter, if we are running well, the other team getting tired and we feed off that. With Ryquell doing so well, it’s been good and I am fairly healthy. I feel a lot better than I did at this time last year.”
About Navy: The Midshipmen’s offensive scheme has molded into a prolific triple-option attack, led by quarterback Will Worth, who has rushed for 1,181 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2016. In 11 games, Navy has averaged 41.9 points per game (11th-best in nation), and defeated Southern Methodist 75-31 last Saturday to clinch the West division crown. Navy has produced more than 500 yards of offense in its last three games, and was forced to punt on only two drives in the month of November.
“It’s a great offense and they’ve done a terrific job of wearing teams down and winning the war of attrition,” Rhule said. “That’s something we pride ourselves on. It’s not often that we play other teams that run, run, run and pound people until they submit, but that’s what Navy has done.”
The Midshipmen’s weaknesses, however, are visible on defense, a unit which has allowed 30.1 points per game (76th-best in nation). In its last three games, Navy has conceded 102 points and 1,342 total yards.
AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP
TEMPLE (9-3, 7-1) at NAVY (9-2, 7-1)
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 3, 12 P.M.
NAVY-MARINE CORPS MEMORIAL STADIUM, ANNAPOLIS, MD
TV: ABC RADIO: 97.5 THE FANATIC
ODDS: NAVY -3