In Liacouras swan song, Pepper lifts Temple to win

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In Liacouras swan song, Pepper lifts Temple to win

BOX SCORE

Dalton Pepper took the floor before his teammates Tuesday night.

Honored as the Owls' lone senior this season, he was walked out to midcourt by his parents before posing for a picture with his head coach and athletic director and finally being presented with a framed jersey.

Then, once the game started, he stayed on the floor as long as anyone.

In the final home game of his collegiate career, Pepper scored a game-high 26 points in a whopping 44 minutes to lead Temple over UCF, 86-78, in overtime (see Instant Replay).

It's not quite the end of his career -- the Owls have one more regular-season game and then the American Athletic Conference tournament to play -- but he's almost there.

And it was the last time he'd play in front of his friends and family at home.

"It feels really good to get a win in my last game at the Liacouras Center," he said. "I just wanted to end the regular season in the right way, and it was a big win for us."

Actually, it was only Temple's fourth home win of the season, if you can believe it. The Owls' (8-21, 3-14) season-long struggles have naturally extended to their home floor.

The Liacouras Center is a building in which Temple has always enjoyed success -- even before it was called the Liacouras Center. The Owls once won 25 straight games here from January 2010-December 2011 under Fran Dunphy. Coming into 2013-14, Temple was 152-43 at the Apollo for a 77.9 winning percentage since the building opened in 1997.

But Tuesday's down-to-the-wire win only improved the Owls' home record this year to a final 4-10. That number exactly doubles the record for the most losses by a Temple team at the Liacouras Center in a single season.

"It was an important win," Dunphy said. "Anytime … yeah, we need wins."

Even if only for Pepper. Frankly, he deserved one.

The fifth-year swingman came into Tuesday averaging a team-high 17.2 points per game, good enough for fourth in the American behind Russ Smith, Shabazz Napier and Sean Kilpatrick. Pepper is the only one of the four without a national profile.

He's just got one locally. A native of Levittown, Pa., he scored a Pennsbury High School-record 2,207 points, fell a few rebounds shy of 1,000 and was named the AP's 2009 Pennsylvania big school player of the year.

What happened after that has been repeated often this season. Pepper was recruited by Dunphy, but he ultimately chose Bob Huggins and West Virginia. After two years in Morgantown in which he struggled to crack the Mountaineers' rotation, he came home, transferred to Temple and sat out a season the 2011-12 season.

And last year, just like in his two years at West Virginia, he once again lacked opportunity. In an inconsistent 11.3 minutes per game on a team with five seniors, Pepper shot 21.8 percent through his first 20 games as an Owl.

Now, finally with a chance to shine, Pepper's been a 41.1 percent shooter this year in 37.1 minutes. In nine games this year, including Tuesday night, he's played 40 or more minutes.

It's just a shame that the season in which Pepper finally got his chance is the same season that Temple has set a new program record for losses.

"It's hard," Dunphy said when asked about senior, which is what he usually (and understandably) says when asked about it every year. As for Pepper, in specific:

"He's a tremendous kid. He's had a great season so far. He's got a little more to go, but he's given everything he possibly could. … When he came back into the locker room, everyone was very happy for him that he had his last game here at Liacouras. It was important that we won the game, but more importantly for them they wanted Pep to have this as a going away present."

Dunphy was then asked what it was like to finally see Pepper flourish after four years when it looked like he may have just been one of those really great high school players who never really translated to college.

"There's no way you can say he didn't have it in him," Dunphy said. "This is the kind of kid he can be. He just didn't have the confidence level that he has now. The fact that we needed him so badly, I've said to him a number of times, 'It's not like if you make a mistake you're coming out. You're not coming out. So do whatever you can to be the best player you can and stay in the moment.' And for the most part he has done that.

"We had a lot of bodies at his position last year, so he wasn't given that same opportunity to fail that he has this year. It's just the way life has worked out for him. But the great thing about him is he never complained about it.

"He just went ahead and did his work."

Jahad Thomas to lead crowded Temple backfield

Jahad Thomas to lead crowded Temple backfield

The way Jahad Thomas remembers it, the football culture in Elizabeth, New Jersey, was vibrant. Friday night meant flocking to Williams Field to watch Elizabeth High School play. In Elizabeth, football dominates while basketball and baseball take a back seat.

Elizabeth has produced several NFL players, including former Eagles defensive coordinator and Jets head coach Todd Bowles, but two that came to mind for Thomas are linebacker Khaseem Greene and running back Raymond Graham, both of whom he watched growing up.

"You know, every Friday night, we looked forward to going to them games after Pop Warner practice," Thomas said. "And just knowing that we were going to be in those shoes one day … just knowing that we had some big shoes to fill, we just loved it. We grasped the opportunity and took advantage of it."

Thomas, Temple's top offensive weapon, finds himself in a position where the Owls will have to find someone to fill his shoes soon enough. Now, the senior tailback is among the Owls' core leadership group with three sophomore running backs behind him who are expected to receive their fair amount of touches in 2016.

Both Thomas and head coach Matt Rhule said Temple will be employing a rotation in the backfield with Thomas, Ryquell Armstead, Jager Gardner and David Hood. Rhule called Armstead a "co-starter," Hood a "jack-of-all-trades" and also praised Gardner.

"They are game-ready now," Rhule said of the sophomores. "They're battle-tested a little bit more, so we'll put them in there and not even think about it."

As for Thomas, the plan still is to use him as the feature back, but move him around the field to create mismatches and other creative ways to get him the ball in space. With the depth Temple has at running back, it allows offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas the opportunity to put Thomas in the slot and not lose much by not having him in the backfield.

For Thomas, who was hurt a bit last season, the committee also allows him a chance to make plays but also help preserve his body without having to carry the ball 20 times per game.

It'd be easy for Thomas to be selfish after rushing for 1,262 yards and 1,677 all-purpose yards, third most in program history, and scoring 19 total touchdowns last season. But with Rhule asking more from him in a leadership role, he's embracing guiding Armstead, Gardner and Hood and wants to set a standard for the trio to follow.

"Just being a mentor to them guys," Thomas said. "Just show them how guys before me showed me when they were here, just lead by example, show them what a leader is. I've been here four years. I've seen a lot, I've been through a lot here. Just try to be those guys' older brother. That's what I try to be for those guys."

Last season, while Thomas was the star of the group, Hood, a redshirt sophomore, did contribute when called upon. Against Tulane, a Temple blowout victory, the 5-foot-9 tailback ran for 47 yards on 16 carries, mainly in mop-up duty, while adding a 10-yard touchdown reception.

When Thomas, dealing with some bumps and bruises, struggled against Memphis, Rhule turned to the hot hand in Hood, who rewarded the head coach with a 14-61-1 day on the ground.

Hood described Temple's backfield as group that brings a little bit of everything. Both Armstead and Gardner are power backs, Hood said, while Thomas and himself can do it all.

"We just got a lot of guys who are ready to go attack," said Hood, who had 272 all-purpose yards and two total touchdowns in 2015. "We got a lot of depth, so there's always competition every day, just fighting for a spot. Everyone is talented and able to be a starter, so every day it's lace up and play your best to get the spot."

The Owls' offense lost a dimension with the loss of lead wideout Robby Anderson, who went undrafted but is currently enjoying a fine preseason with the New York Jets.

While the younger players such as Ventell Bryant and Adonis Jennings will be relied on to help out the passing attack, the running game is the heart of the offense Rhule wants to deploy. And the Owls know how dangerous they can be on the ground with what senior quarterback Phillip Walker, a longtime teammate of Thomas' dating to as far back as high school, called a "four-headed monster."

"At any moment, any one of them can have a big game," said Walker, who himself remains a key compenent of Temple's offense (see story). "Jager had a big game last year vs. SMU. Ryquell was just consistent each game every time he played last year. Jahad just had a great season. And David Hood stepped in when Jahad got hurt vs. Memphis and played well and blocked very well on third down.

"You don't know what you're going to get from those guys each week. You just come to expect that they're all going to play good. I think we have a good group of guys and they're all consistent."

With new name, new number, Phillip Walker remains key for successful Temple season

With new name, new number, Phillip Walker remains key for successful Temple season

One would think that Temple’s all-time leader in touchdown passes, completions and total offense might not want to change much.

Think again.

Entering his senior season, Owls quarterback Phillip Walker is embracing plenty of changes, starting with his own name.

“It was a maturity thing for me,” Walker said last week during the team’s annual media day of the decision to ditch the nickname P.J. for his given name Phillip. “The older I get, the less I wanted to be called P.J. 

“It’s just something that I wanted to do. I didn’t mind being called P.J. or anything like that, but I feel like the more I get older and older and the more I’m about to get into the real world of being done with football in a year or whatever or at the next level or anything, I’d rather be called Phillip than P.J.”

While the name switch may take a while for Walker’s teammates to get used to, it shouldn’t be an issue for Matt Rhule. Temple’s head coach has routinely referred to Walker as Phillip over the years … when he was upset with the QB’s performance on the field.

“He told me, ‘Coach, you can keep calling me P.J. but I’m going to try to go by Phillip to everybody moving forward,’” Rhule explained. “I call him Phillip. When I get angry, I call him Phillip a lot. I call him P.J. probably on the practice field. There was a tweet I said I’ll call you Phillip if you call me Matt. I called Coach Paterno Joe. That’s what we did at Penn State, so he tweeted Matt and I are getting ready for a great year.

“I’ll call him Phillip. I’ll call him Walker. I’ll call him P.J. I’ll call him a lot of other things.”

The Owls are most proud of the fact that they can call Walker a leader. The quarterback has made great strides during his time on North Broad Street, both on the field and in the locker room.

No one knows just how far Walker has come more than starting running back Jahad Thomas. The two, who attended Elizabeth High School in New Jersey together and won a state sectional championship in 2012, are close friends and roommates.

“Unbelievable. I’m really at a loss for words on that question because where we’re from not too many guys get that opportunity,” Thomas said of his trek from high school to college with Walker. “To see friends and someone that’s like a brother to me just go through the journey that I’ve been through – the losing seasons, the ups and downs throughout our careers and our lives, the different paths that we took to get here – for us to just have that type of bond and to have another four years coming into college, playing here and winning that [American Athletic Conference East Division] championship, it’s just greatness. 

“Somebody like that you really cherish just outside of the field, not only for what they can do on the field but for who he is and what type of role he plays in my life. I’ve been excited for him since high school, since we started playing together, his freshman year playing, getting to start versus Louisville. Just seeing him blossom after that, man, it kind of brings tears to my eyes.”

The advancement in Walker’s maturation is exactly what TU is hoping for, but the quarterback isn’t about to pretend he is a finished product by any means.

Walker (5-11, 205) was able to throw for a career-high 2,973 yards with 19 touchdowns and cut his interceptions to eight — down from 15 — in 2015. However, his completion percentage was 56.8, a number he wants to bump up to 65.0 percent this season.

Getting Walker, who trails Henry Burris by only 121 yards and 72 attempts for No. 1 on Temple’s all-time list, to check the ball down when necessary is something quarterbacks coach and new offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas has stressed during the summer.

“I’ve gotten better at [checking the ball down] throughout the past couple days of camp,” Walker said. “It’s just something that Coach Thomas preaches every single day — completions, completions, winning plays. Just going up there with a purpose at the line of scrimmage, knowing what’s going on, knowing when to make checks, knowing when to change the plays and things like that, just having a purpose and knowing what to do on the field.”

Those decisions to check the ball down instead of forcing the big play are what TU hopes can take Walker to a new level on the field. And, frankly, the team will need it to have any chance of repeating last season’s historic success.

The Owls lost defensive back Tavon Young, defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis and linebacker Tyler Matakevich to the NFL draft. Those are three key pieces to a fearsome 2015 unit that helped lead the team to its second 10-win season and fifth bowl game appearance in program history.

That means the 2016 squad will flip its focus from having a powerful defense to being a force on offense, as Walker looks to become the first Temple quarterback ever to lead his team to two bowl games.

He’ll do so with one more change: a new number. Walker ditched his No. 11 and will play his senior season in a single-digit jersey, given out by the staff to the Owls’ toughest players. Walker will don No. 8, previously worn by stalwart LB Matakevich.

From the heart and soul on defense to his counterpart on offense.

“He’s the key. Phillip’s the key to us being a dominant offense,” Rhule said. “We’ve been really good on defense for a while. We’ve never really been a dominant offense. It’s not just his play. It’s him demanding that guys do things right all the time. There’s always been guys on defense who have demanded that we play at a certain standard every rep, every play of practice. What you’re seeing right now is you’re seeing guys like Phillip and like Jahad demanding that from the offense.”

“I put a lot of pressure on myself every day just to be out there to be the best player on the football field, be as good as I know can be each and every day,” Walker said. “I know if I’m at my best then guys around me will be at their best.”

Experience a day in the life of Temple football's training camp

Experience a day in the life of Temple football's training camp

Before their classmates even stepped foot on campus, Temple football was going through what was possibly their toughest test of the season—three weeks of training camp.

Coach Matt Rhule and the Owls gave us a behind-the-scenes look at what the players and coaches go through during a day of camp in the video above. We were there through the meetings, meals and walk-thrus before the team eventually departed for the Phillies game. It was a 12 + hour day for the players, but with walk-thrus replacing actual practice, this particular day was considered a “light” one.

This Temple squad still have veteran leadership returning from last season, but they have to replace multiple NFL draft picks on defense. Everyone from seniors to freshmen will be looked upon to keep up the Owls' strong defense going (see story)

Rhule is in his fourth season as the Owls' head coach. After going 2-10 in his first season, Rhule has brought Temple to a 10-4 record a year ago, highlighted by an appearance in the AAC Championship Game and the Boca Raton Bowl. However, the Owls are already moving past their strong 2015 (see story).

For a look at Temple's training camp, check out the video above.