Freshman tackle Zach Hooks, who once played his high school championship game for Aliquippa at Heinz Field, says he’ll have some 30 family and friends in the stands Saturday when Temple plays Pitt. Senior safety Justin Gildea, a lifelong Steelers fan from Altoona, says he’ll be cheered on by a following of 20 or so.
While putting on a good show before the home folks would be nice, the duo has an even bigger motivation than getting the bad taste of last week’s second half collapse vs. Rutgers out of their mouths. Because if the Owls’ ultimate hope is to get back to a bowl game for the third time in the last four years, this may be their biggest game.
“It’s definitely huge,” said Hooks, who moved into the starting lineup at left tackle this year after redshirting last season. “We’re trying to get to six wins and be bowl eligible. We feel like Pittsburgh is a matchup game. They’re no better than us, so we think we can win.”
That might not be the case the following two weeks when Temple (3-3) faces Louisville (7-0) on the road, then hosts Cincinnati (5-1) before finishing up with Army and Syracuse. Somehow they need to win three of those, putting a premium on Saturday’s homecoming for Hooks and Gildea.
“To be bowl eligible, especially the first year coming into the Big East, is one of our goals,” said Gildea, who was briefly recruited by Pitt. “We can prove we’re not just another team. We want to go to a bowl game and have a winning record.”
On paper, first-year coach Paul Chryst’s Panthers (3-4) are vulnerable. While quarterback Tino Sunseri has thrown for 1,878 yards and 10 touchdowns — and backs Ray Graham (513 yards)/Rushel Shell (382) have combined for eight scores — Pitt has surrendered 31 or more points three times. Of course, with quarterback Chris Coyer struggling, while running back Matt Brown remains hobbled on a bad ankle, Temple may not have the firepower to win a shootout.
“We got punched in the mouth last week,” said Hooks. “Now the only thing we can do is respond this week and get a win.”