Back in September, the prospect of a home team with wings on its helmet celebrating a division championship at the Linc wouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. But the idea that that team wouldn’t be the Eagles, but the Temple Owls - now that would’ve qualified as a shocker.
Late Saturday night, with a slight drizzle coming down and a sea of cherry and white filling the field following a decisive 27-3 romp over UConn, there were the Temple Owls basking in the moment - hoisting the American Athletic Conference East championship trophy. Two years after sinking to the depths—going 2-10 in Matt Rhule’s first season—these Owls have hit the heights. Although they won’t consider the job done unless they knock off AAC West champion Houston next Saturday at high noon, in Texas, in the Conference title game.
“There’s no greater feeling than holding that trophy in your hands but we can’t be satisfied,” said do-everything linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who stuck it to his home-state school with 11 tackles Saturday, giving him 473 for his career. “We didn’t work this hard all year just to get there.
“But it’s such an amazing feeling. To go 2-10, 6-6 and now to be 10-2 that’s extraordinary, I don’t think too many programs in the country can do that. I’ve got to give credit to all of us seniors. We just stuck it out when times were tough. We fought through it and kept buying in and here’s our reward. “
They’ll get an 11-1 Cougars squad coming off a 52-21 rout of Navy to clinch the Western crown, after falling to those same Huskies Temple demolished Saturday. While Connecticut’s defense kept it within striking distance—down just 10-0 at the half and 13-0 late in the third—the Huskies’ offense was completely non-existent thanks to an overwhelming effort by the Owls defense. UConn had just 65 net yards through three quarters, before Rhule cleared his bench, allowing them to finish with 138 yards and a meaningless field goal to spoil Temple’s shutout bid. It marked the fourth time this season that the Owls held an opponent to 180 yards or less.
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Not a bad way to go out on Senior Night, as the Owls reached 10 wins for only the second time in school history.
“You can’t let the moment get too big,” Matakevich, said, echoing the words of his coach. “Knowing it’s your last home game and senior night - kids tend to struggle, emotions start effecting way they play. He told us ‘You can’t let that happen. Just take a deep breath, do what you’ve been doing all year. Go play and have fun.’’’
It wasn’t exactly “fun” for the 6-1, 232 lb. Matakevich and the other 21 seniors early in their Temple careers as they suffered through a 4-7 year in 2012 under Steve Addazio, who promptly decided to bolt for Boston College.
“We go 4-7 with Addazio,’’ recalled Matakevich, a finalist for the prestigious Butkus Award as the nation’s top interior linebacker. “Then we get a new coach. Guys don’t know what to do. Some want to leave. Some want to stay. Then we go 2-10 and guys are saying ‘What’s going on? I didn’t stick around for this.’ But I kept telling them ‘It’s gonna change.’’’
The culmination of that change came shortly after 10 p.m. Saturday, as the delirious players went out to salute their cheering fans in the stands, singing the alma mater, followed by a rousing rendition of the Temple Fight song. The celebration continued in the locker room, while their coach—already dealing with rumors that he’s under consideration for the Missouri job—spoke to the character of his players, who refused to be defined by a losing mentality that had been permeating campus.
“I’m just really proud of our kids,” said Rhule, who gets credit for keeping them together when it would’ve been easy to see it fall apart. “As a team, we talked about how perseverance conquers has been the story of this team over the last three years.
“It’s really the motto of Temple University. To win the East is a big deal for us as well as having the chance to be in the first ever (AAC) championship game.
“As I just told the guys, the rewards are great but what I want to see is for us to play great in big moments. I thought we did that tonight.”
Now the “other” team that plays at the Linc will get one more chance, something few could’ve imagined two or three years ago.
Because the AAC East champion Temple Owls have become the best birds in town.