In three seasons under coach Matt Rhule, Temple has gone from the American Athletic Conference cellar to playing for its first championship in 48 years.
That's put Rhule in the spotlight.
With Rhule reportedly breaking off talks for another job, the No. 20 Owls visit 17th-ranked Houston in the first AAC title game Saturday.
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After going 8-16 over its first two seasons under Rhule, Temple (10-2, 7-1) tied the program record for wins set in 1979 when it was 10-2.
The Owls only other league title was a Middle Atlantic Conference championship in 1967. They're in position to add another after beating Connecticut 27-3 last Saturday.
“We kept buying in, buying in,” senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich said. “We didn't want to lose anymore. We just said, 'No more. Enough is enough.' That's what's happening right now. This team is something special.
“It's such an amazing feeling. Give credit to all the seniors who stuck it out.”
Rhule is also getting credit and was linked to the opening at Missouri. However, recent reports say the sides are no longer talking.
“Our team is way too strong to be distracted by anything with me,” said Rhule, who signed a four-year extension over the summer. “This is a unique, wonderful week in Temple football history. Don't waste it thinking about me. This is awesome. This is championship week. I'm right here, man.”
The Owls will spend most of their time thinking about Houston (11-1, 7-1) and dynamic quarterback Greg Ward Jr.
Ward has completed 69.3 percent of his passes for 2,502 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. He's also a major threat on the ground, gaining 5.5 yards per carry while his 893 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns rank second in the nation among QBs.
“You have to contain him,” Rhule said. “You have to keep him in the pocket, but you also have to rush him or else he'll sit there and pick you apart.”
Temple experienced that in a 31-10 loss at Houston last year. Ward was held to 44 yards on 13 carries and was sacked three times, but he hit 29 of 33 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns.
He did practically everything in a 52-31 win over then-No. 16 Navy on Nov. 27. Ward connected on 26 of 35 passes for a season-high 308 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for another score and 83 yards on 14 carries.
The performance came after an injured ankle limited him to 15 passes over the previous two weeks.
“We are all going for one goal,” Ward said. “We told each other that we are going to give each other all that we have, and that we are going to play for our brothers.”
Ward, though, will have to solve a Temple defense that's allowed 370 total yards over the last two games after surrendering 556 – 326 rushing – in a 44-23 loss to South Florida on Nov. 14.
Demarcus Ayers is Ward's go-to target, ranking second in the conference with 89 catches for 1,140 yards and six touchdowns. He's hauled in 28 passes for 371 yards with one TD over the last three games.
“He was a quarterback in high school and transitioned to wide receiver and has really worked the entire offseason on honing his craft,” first-year coach Tom Herman said. “He's becoming a much better blocker. He's becoming a much better open field runner and most importantly a better route runner. Beyond that he's become a better teammate.”
Herman also attracted interest from other schools before regents voted Nov. 19 to negotiate an amendment that would more than double his salary to $3 million a year and increase his performance incentives.
The Owls are looking for a better effort from P.J. Walker, who completed 12 of 29 passes for 259 yards with one score and three picks against the Cougars last year.
Temple turned the ball over four times in that meeting after doing it three times in a 22-13 home loss the previous season.
“Our history against Houston in the last couple years has just been that we've just always turned the ball over quite a great deal,” Rhule said. “If we can eliminate that, but that's just our plan to win.”
Walker has tossed six INTs compared to 18 touchdowns. He has eight scoring passes and two interceptions over the past four games.
Temple's Jahad Thomas has reached the end zone 18 times – 17 on the ground. The running back's 1,188 yards rank second in the AAC, and he's gained 4.8 per carry.
The winner Saturday should play in a New Year's Six bowl game, probably the Peach Bowl.