WRITTEN BY TOM HANSLIN @tomhanslin
PHILADELPHIA–Temple running back Jahad Thomas only recorded five total rushing yards against Penn State last November, but in the Owls’ 2015 season opener against the Nittany Lions on Saturday, Thomas took the lead role in the national spotlight, rushing for 135 yards with two touchdowns in Temple’s monumental 27-10 win over Penn State.
The Owls’ upset victory was history in the making, as it was Temple’s first win against Penn State since the 1941 season. The Nittany Lions were looking to extend the match up winning streak to 32 consecutive games, but were denied ample opportunities on offense due to relentless pressure from the Owls’ fierce defensive front.
Despite numerous blunders, Penn State did draw first blood, as a 34-yard field goal from Joey Julius put the Nittany Lions ahead 3-0 with 10:47 remaining in the first quarter. The Temple offense failed to convert on their first three offensive drives, and forced four punts by Owls’ Alex Starzyk in the first fifteen minutes of play.
With less than six minutes remaining in the first quarter, the Nittany Lions managed to open up the score, as a 42-yard touchdown run by Akeel Lynch complemented a six-play, 75-yard drive that increased the Penn State lead to 10-0.
The second quarter opened with three consecutive punts, as both Temple and Penn State struggled to develop an offensive scheme. Nittany Lions’ Daniel Pasquariello placed a 36-yard punt onto the Owls’ own 7-yard line with nine minutes remaining, but deep in their own territory, Temple ignited a spark on offense, as both quarterback P.J. Walker and halfback Jahad Thomas combined for 20 rushing yards on the first two plays, and drove the Owls up to midfield with six minutes left until halftime.
At Penn State’s own 49-yard line, Walker connected with wide receiver Ventell Bryant for a 16-yard completion, but the Nittany Lions would respond with a sack of Walker, placing Temple out of field goal range. Thomas was then called upon to establish the ground game, and in three straight plays, he gained 44 yards, earning the Owls their first redzone trip and a 1st and Goal inside the one-yard mark. After being denied of a score twice by the Penn State defense, Walker pitched the ball on 3rd down to Thomas, who walked in untouched for the Owls’ first points of the season. The Owls’ 12-play, 93-yard drive sent both teams to the locker room with Temple trailing 10-7 at the half.
The third quarter began with another series of punts, as the Owls’ returned to offense with under ten minutes remaining. With Temple set at their own 20-yard line, Walker drilled a 20-yard pass to wide out Kip Patton, and in the ensuing play, it was Walker who swapped roles with his receivers, as a trick play found receiver John Christopher throwing to a wide open Walker 25 yards downfield into Nittany Lions’ territory. Walker would later find Robby Anderson for a completion of 11 yards, but the Owls would be forced to settle with a 40-yard field goal by Austin Jones, knotting the score at 10-10.
While the Temple offense began to find a groove, the Nittany Lions continued to be victims of vicious attack, as Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was sacked by linebacker Tyler Matakevich, forcing the seventh punt on the afternoon for Penn State. After another Owls’ three and out, Hackenberg’s offense began at their own 20, and in the second play of the drive, Owls’ linebacker Sharif Finch intercepted a telegraphed pass from Hackenberg, returning the ball to Penn State’s two yard line, which ultimately resulted in a rushing touchdown from Walker, putting Temple ahead for the first time by a score of 17-10 with a minute left in the quarter.
The Nittany Lions opened the fourth quarter trailing by seven, and continued to display an anemic effort with the football, as Hackenberg was brought down by Nate D. Smith for a four yard loss, resulting in the Nittany Lions’ fourth consecutive drive without a first down conversion.
The Owls continued to demonstrate their dominance in all three phases of the game, and added on another long touchdown run from Jahad Thomas and a 30-yard field goal from Austin Jones to capsulate 27 unanswered points by the Temple offense. In the closing moments, Lincoln Financial Field security began to barricade accessible field entrances, in order to prevent fans from storming the field in celebration of the historical program victory.
“I was really proud of the fact that our players didn’t celebrate until the game was over,” said Temple head coach Matt Rhule. “I know for our fans how important this win is, and I am also thrilled for all of our former players.”
A record attendance of 69,176 was Temple’s largest home game audience in program history, and in the brightest of spotlights, Coach Rhule believes his players did not let the moment blind them.
“The reason why we won is because we focused on ourselves, not Penn State,” said Rhule. “Hopefully this won’t be the highlight of the season. The truest test of who we are is how we play next.”
The highlights of Week 1 belonged to a long list of Owls, specifically on the defensive side, as Temple managed to sack Penn State’s Hackenberg ten times, a number that has never been reached in a single game under the Matt Rhule regime.
“We started disguising, and you could tell [Hackenberg] got really uncomfortable right away,” said Senior Tyler Matakevich. “We knew if we were bringing a blitz from a certain side, their offensive line couldn’t pick it up.”
While the defensive side kept the game intact, the offense rewarded their teammates’ efforts, as P.J. Walker completed 15 of 20 passes for 154 total yards. Temple receivers earned 168 of the Owls’ 317 total yards, and Walker believes that his offense was never intimidated by the situation at hand.
“I don’t think we were ever out of the game, but we had to stay humble,” said Walker. “We have enough playmakers out there that can make a play at any time.”
In comparison to last year’s matchup at Beaver Stadium, the Owls were responsible for five costly turnovers and 30 total points from the Nittany Lions, but on Saturday, Temple nearly doubled their number of first down conversions from eight last year to 15, and committed only a single fumble on the offensive end. In relation to the ups and downs, Coach Rhule drew parallels between his team and the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” Olympic hockey team.
“When the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team lost 10-3 to the Soviets, they made changes in order to succeed,” implied Rhule. “We took the game from last year and said if we want to win, we have to eliminate certain things.”
The Owls did just that, and opened the 2015 campaign with a 1-0 record for the second straight season. The team will now embark on their first road trip of the year, en route to Ohio to face the Cincinnati Bearcats in the first weekend of American Athletic Conference games. While Temple’s program has now earned some national recognition, the team believes a poor effort in Cincinnati would make Saturday’s victory irrelevant.
“I’m already looking past this and am onto the next game at Cincinnati,” said Walker. “That’s one of many victories that’s coming this year.”