Not that long ago Temple, now nationally ranked for the first time since January, 1980, would’ve found a way to lose this one, rather than coming from behind in the fourth quarter Saturday night to beat winless Central Florida, 30-16.
And it wasn’t as if they didn’t try, gift-wrapping four turnovers — including a pick-six — into 10 points to a UCF team that managed just 134 net yards.
But somehow Temple managed to overcome all that to run its record to 6-0 for the first time since Wayne Hardin’s Owls did it in 1974. Exactly where that mentality changed for Matt Rhule's Owls, no one’s quite sure.
Rhule, who kept insisting they were making strides even while going 2-10 in 2013, points to a 41-21 season finale win at Memphis. Senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who moved past 400 career tackles in the first quarter, remembers the last time UCF was here, when star quarterback Blake Bortles rallied the Bulls to a 39-36 victory.
Temple now expects to win, having already pulled off a week three miracle at UMass and built from there.
“I wasn’t concerned at all,” insisted Jahad Thomas, who rumbled for 123 of his career high 199 yards along with two pivotal touchdowns in the fourth to erase a 16-14 deficit. “We have a mentality of ‘What’s next?,’ so no one was worried about us being down.
“I think that mentality has always been here, but we weren’t able to finish certain games we wanted to last year or the previous year. I think the maturity coming from the group of seniors and great leaders we have coming into this year changed the program.”
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Thomas has now amassed 756 yards on 145 carries and 10 scores for the season, along with touchdowns receiving and on a kickoff return.
Not bad for a guy who was playing defense until last season and didn’t emerge as the focal point of the offense until this year.
“We knew in the spring that he was taking another step,” said Rhule, after Thomas gained nearly as many yards coming out of the backfield as a receiver last year (364) than on the ground (80 carries for 384 yards but no touchdowns). “I don’t think we realized how physical he would run the ball. We thought he was more of a scat back guy who would catch screen passes. He’s surprising everyone.”
Not his teammates.
“I just put the ball in his hands and he has the ability to make people miss.” said quarterback P.J. Walker, who shook off that killer interception turning a 14-3 game on the verge of becoming a rout into a tight game to finish 15-for-27 for 149 yards and a touchdown, while being on the receiving end of a two-point conversion pass from John Christopher. “Today was his day. He just goes out there and does his thing.”
As a kid, Thomas says he admired Reggie Bush and for a while used to try model his game after him.
“That was the style I wanted to be as a runner,” admitted Thomas, who won’t have much time to rest his body with Temple traveling to East Carolina Thursday. “I loved seeing how shifty he was, how he made quick decisions and could make people miss. That was somebody I really looked up to and wanted to copy. But as you get older you know you have to pick your spots. You can’t make exotic cuts all the time.”
Jahad Thomas and the Temple Owls have taken command in the AAC East and can virtually lock up the division win a win at 4-3 East Carolina.
Then it’s the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame on Halloween at the Linc, a game that’s already sold out. But having been down for so long the last thing these Owls will do is start looking ahead.
“UMass was definitely a wakeup call,’’ said Thomas, whose club has outscored the opposition 116-29 since pulling out a 25-23 last second win in Amherst “We know that everyone’s going to come and give us their best, because of the success that we’ve had.
“We have a target on our back. Being in those situations and just knowing we will and can pull through helps us as we continue our season.”
A season where winning for nationally ranked Temple has finally become the expectation.