Temple didn’t mince words about its early setbacks in 2016.
The Owls were “hurt” after their season-opening loss to Army. They were “angry” after dropping a rivalry game to Penn State. They stressed a need to “finish” following a blown lead to Memphis.
All of that heartbreak went into making the Owls what they are today: leaders in the American Athletic Conference East Division.
Temple turned the tables on run-oriented South Florida to gash the Bulls for 319 rushing yards (210 coming from Ryquell Armstead) in a 46-30 win on Friday night at Lincoln Financial Field (instant replay).
The victory helped the Owls (5-3, 3-1 AAC) avenge last season’s blowout and, more importantly, move into a first-place tie in the conference’s East Division. With back-to-back wins over South Florida and Central Florida, Temple now holds tiebreakers over its two closest competitors in the East.
“Last year’s success we had as a team was built on the years we went 2-10 and 6-6,” head coach Matt Rhule said. “It might sound corny to you guys, but you lose games and you learn all these lessons and you learn how to win.
“Toward the end of last year, you have some success. It doesn’t end the way you wanted it to. You come back this year, all those losses we had or the certain losses we had, we hated them but the kids did a good job of trying to learn from them.”
Temple showed just how much it learned from all of those tough lessons on Friday night. After getting shredded by the South Florida (6-2, 3-1 AAC) dynamic duo of quarterback Quinton Flowers and tailback Marlon Mack a season ago, TU opted to get its own ground game going in this one to help control both sides of the ball.
It worked to perfection early with Temple scoring on three of its first four possessions, including a 15-play drive that was capped off by a one-yard touchdown catch by tight end Colin Thompson and a 76-yard TD run by Armstead.
Even later in the game when the Bulls used a quick three-play, 84-yard drive to take a 23-20 lead, the Owls didn’t panic like in past instances. They responded with a three-play drive of their own as Armstead broke free through the right edge for a 42-yard touchdown rumble.
A blocked punt on the ensuing possession provided excellent field position for the Owls, who only needed another two plays for Jahad Thomas to punch it into the end zone from nine yards out for a double-digit lead.
“Just powering guys in the first and second quarter. Just coming in and head-hunting, basically, not shying from contact,” Armstead said of his mindset in the run game. “By the end of the third and fourth quarter, they don’t want to tackle me. It’s just opening up.”
“Our big thing is just finishing the game as best we can,” fullback Nick Sharga said. “I think really just wearing teams down by running the ball toward the end of the game helps our offense out, so we take pride in it.”
The primetime effort was something the Owls’ offense as a whole could take pride in. Temple racked up 528 total yards, 26 first downs, dominated time of possession 39:07 to 20:53 and didn’t commit a turnover.
“There’s a way to win every game. Bill Parcells said that and I believe it,” Rhule said. “We get in the game and it just looked like the downfield passing game was going to be there in terms of some of the throws we threw at the end of the half. And it looked like the power run game was going to be there, so we stuck with it.”
Temple’s defense stayed the course as well. After letting the Bulls close the gap within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, the Owls’ D tightened with an interception that set up a TD and a sack for a safety to seal the win.
In all, the group held a potent USF team that came into Friday eighth in the nation in rushing (268.4 yards per game) and 15th in total yards (506.4 yards per game) to 165 and 352, respectively.
“We came in the game with a mindset that we were going to play really well,” defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike said. “We knew what kind of guys they had. We knew they were going to get some plays on us. It was going to come down to the fourth quarter and it did, so we just kept playing the whole game.”
The ability to just keep playing is a mantra that should stick with Owls, especially now that they are back on top of the East Division. One slip-up and they could be right back to searching for words to describe their level of disappointment for this season.
“This was a team that mirrors us that they try to line up and pound you and they’re just so athletic and physical. This was a huge win for us,” Rhule said. “But as I told them in there, everything you did tonight won’t matter if you lose next week. You better get right back on the process that we do.
“It was just a huge moment for us with Army happening and then Memphis, letting it slip out of our hands. Then last week, kind of making some plays at the end. … There were just so many guys that made plays. That’s what makes it a huge win to me. Obviously it gives us some control, but that all can change in a week or the blink of an eye. They better stay focused.”