Temple, set to appear in 2nd straight AAC title game, has come long way

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Start slow. Finish strong.

That’s been the story of Temple football under Matt Rhule.

Not only in Saturday’s come-from-behind 37-10 pounding of East Carolina at the Linc, which wrapped up the American Conference East for the second straight year and sends the Owls to the ACC title game versus Navy Saturday in Annapolis. It applies to their season overall, where the Owls, after starting off 1-2 and 3-3 and on the verge of falling to 3-4, pulled off a miracle last-second win at Central Florida to trigger their current six-game winning streak.

And going further back to the time when the current seniors went 1-10 as freshmen, then 6-6, before reeling off 10-4 and 9-3 seasons. Those are merely the greatest back-to-back seasons in school history, with a chance for Temple to reach double figures if it can figure out a way to beat the high-scoring Midshipmen or win their bowl game to be named later. After the latest USA Today polls, the Owls are ranked 23rd in the country.

“I’m extremely excited to get the win tonight on senior night and to send our seniors out the way they deserve,” said Rhule, who stood back quietly on the fringe and watched his team celebrate on the field and hoist the AAC East trophy, acting almost as if he didn’t have anything to do with it. “They’re tremendous kids, who’ve battled through adversity.

“I think it shows the resolve of those kids, to be sitting there with a 3-3 record and to win six straight; to be able to come back and battle from where we were and to not turn on each other or give up on the year and be selfish was what matters.

“For them to do what they did this year is outstanding.”

Especially since no one but them saw it coming.

“I love how far we’ve come,” said defensive end Praise Martin-Oguike, who had two sacks, one resulting in a fumble recovery late in the half the led to Jahad Thomas’ 3-yard touchdown run, as the Owls scored twice in 58 seconds to take a 21-7 halftime lead. “Coach Rhule has really taken us to another level and I am glad I was able to see that happen over the last few years.

“It’s just amazing to watch how a school that was a laughing stock in football —I mean we were a basketball school. But now we’ve just kept growing. It’s great to see how everything has come together for the school.”

Especially since that pulsating 26-25 win in Orlando which transformed a season seemingly going nowhere.

“After the Central Florida game we met as seniors and decided to put the team on our back,” said defensive back Nate Hairston, one of 17 seniors playing their final home game.“The leadership stepped up since and has really been tremendous.”

Coincidence or not, Temple’s trailed just two times since — for brief spells—in the ensuing five games, while winning by at least 16 points. It means they’ve now come full circle, having started off with a 28-13 loss against Army, which ran the triple option while amassing 329 yards on the ground.

Navy, coming off 75 and 66 point explosions the last two weeks against ECU and SMU, also runs the triple option.

“I think it gives us an idea what to get ready for,” said Rhule, whose team fell to Navy 31-24 at the Linc in 2014. “That shows our kids hard they work and how much they sacrifice.They [Army and Navy] play similar. They both run the triple option. I think our kids know and understand that we have got to go play a great game against a great team.”

But not let the occasion overwhelm them as in last year’s 24-13 AAC Championship game loss at Houston, where they dug a 17-0 first half hole.

“It’s more intense, but you can’t allow the moment to be too big,” said Thomas, who ran for 152 yards and two touchdown against ECU, giving him 856 yards rushing and 12 scores for the season, 38 TDs and over 3,700 all-purpose yards for his stellar career. “I think that’s what happened to us last year when he had some early turnovers that determined the outcome.

“But as a group we’ve experienced that and everything that goes into it.”

Leave it to last year’s star to offer a final word of advice. “Finish,” urged 2015 All-American linebacker Tyler Matakevich, now with the Steelers. “That’s what we didn’t do last year.

“They need to learn from that and go finish it off.”

It would only be fitting.

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