A Temple season which began with the Owls getting crushed on the ground by Army came full circle with Matt Rhule’s team swabbing the Navy-Marine Corps Stadium decks from start to finish against Navy Saturday, 34-10 to win the championship of the American Athletic Conference.
As a reward they’ll get a chance to return to the scene and do it all over again against Wake Forest in the Military Bowl, Dec. 27. It will be the Owls second appearance in this game, originally known as the Eagle Bank Bowl. Al Golden’s team lost to UCLA, 30-21, in 2009 at RFK Stadium.
Their fate was sealed late yesterday afternoon, about an hour after their slim hopes of making it to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl were extinguished with news 13-0 MAC champion Western Michigan was getting that invitation.
But it will do nothing to extinguish the pure unadulterated joy the Owls felt while they were celebrating making history against the No. 19 ranked Midshipmen.
Not since 1967 when Temple took the Division II Middle Atlantic Conference title under George Makris had the Owls won a conference title. In fact in the past 49 years under nine coaches Temple had posted only 15 winning seasons, eight of them by Wayne Hardin, who left in 1982.
So this is rarefied air for these Owls, who scored touchdowns on their first three possessions while keeping in check Navy’s vaunted offense which had erupted for 66 and 75 points the previous two weeks. No wonder that when it was over they didn’t want to leave the field.
The party started on the Temple side of the field a few minutes before quarterback Philip Walker — voted the game’s Outstanding Player after throwing for 199 yards and two touchdowns — took a knee on the final snap. They players hugged and chest-bumped, while a legion of fans who’d made the 125 mile trip from home cheered endlessly.
Finally, championship game hats were handed out, before the AAC Trophy was presented to Rhule, oblivious to the chill in the air wearing only shirtsleeves. He quickly passed it around to the players, who carried it over to the stands for everyone wearing cherry and white to see.
“It means everything,” said All-AAC linebacker Hassan Reddick, after the celebration finally died down. “It’s an indescribable feeling.I never won a championship in high school. So to come to college and be on a platform like this and win and leave as a senior, I feel truly blessed.”
He was hardly alone.
“It's a special feeling,” added All-AAC offensive tackle Dion Dawkins, one of 17 seniors who’ll find out tomorrow what bowl game they’ll be playing in. “At the end of the game, I’m thinking ‘We got finally got it. It took all this time and all these years, but it’s finally here.’
“From how my career started, no, I could’ve never imagined this. It’s been a long road, but I’m happy we stuck it out.”
That the road should end with a blowout of the No. 19 Midshipmen had to shock even them. But unlike last year’s 24-13 title game loss to Houston where the Owls dug a 17-0 first half hole for themselves, they turned the tables by driving 75, 59 and 70 yards on their first three possessions to build that 21-0 cushion just 1:16 into the second quarter.
We’ll never know if Navy could have come back had standout quarterback Will Worth not had to leave with a leg injury that had him on crutches by the second half. But the way Temple bottled up the Middies' triple option all day while forcing one fumble to go with two interceptions, it might not have mattered.
“After the Army game [a 28-13 opening game loss in which the Cadets rushed for 329 yards] I said to my staff, 'When one of these teams cuts you open like that you find out what’s in your soul,'" said Rhule, who hugged everyone in sight on the field at the culmination of a four-year quest that may soon have some big-time schools knocking on his door. “We found out it wasn’t about X’s and oOs that day. We just had a lot of guys who weren’t ready to fight and play 60 minutes. We’ve come a long way since then.”
Considering what his AAC Champion Temple Owls have done already, don’t bet against them.