Two years ago, everything seemed surreal for the Temple football team.
The Owls accepted the programs first bowl bid in 30 years. They made the short trip to Washington D.C. for the EagleBank Bowl. They went from activity to activity, seeing the monuments of the nations capital, all while preparing for the monumental game.
In the end, perhaps, it was all too much, as the Owls missed their chance to capture the programs first bowl win since 1979, dropping a 30-21 decision to UCLA.
I think two years ago we may have been too anxious, senior offensive lineman John Palumbo said. We might have let everything become bigger than the game.
Now, with many of the same players from the 09 team still around, the Owls believe they are better equipped for their second bowl appearance in the last three years.
Temple plays Wyoming on Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl. The game, the first of the 2011 bowl season, can be seen live on ESPN.
I think it helps because weve been in a bowl situation before, junior running back Matt Brown said. Experience is experience, and well use what we learned there and take it with us so well have a positive outcome.
Experience will certainly be a factor for the Owls. So, too, will be the tough, hard-nosed approach first-year head coach Steve Addazio has brought to North Philly.
Led by Brown, star running back Bernard Pierce and a staunch offensive line, the Owls boast one of the deadliest rushing attacks in the nation. And on the other side of the ball, senior linebacker Stephen Johnson Temples leading tackler headlines a fierce defense that ranks third in Division I in scoring defense.
Were just gonna do what we do best, Brown said. Whatever the game plan is, I think our mindset is, Were just gonna overwhelm you. Youre not gonna stop us from getting where we want to go.
The first thing the Owls will try to do against Wyoming is establishing their power run game, especially since starting quarterback Chris Coyer is recovering from a shoulder injury he suffered in the regular-season finale. Addazio said earlier this week that Coyer is ready to rock and roll but that certainly wont change the Owls approach on offense.
Wyoming knows what Temple will do. Now the question is can they stop it?
Theyve had a lot of success rushing the football and maintaining possession, Wyoming coach Dave Christensen said. They havent had to throw it a lot, so theyre going to try to establish the run and throw second. Theyve played three different quarterbacks and well watch them all, but certainly our emphasis is trying to slow down their game.
Fortunately for Temple (8-4), Wyoming has given up an average of 230 rushing yards per game this season, which ranks them ahead of only six other Division I teams.
But even if the Cowboys (8-4) who will be playing in the New Mexico Bowl for the second time in the last three years cant stall Temples high-octane rushing attack, theyll be able to employ an efficient offense of their own, led by quarterback Brett Smith, the Mountain West Conference freshman of the year. Thanks in large part to Smith, who threw for 2,495 yards and 18 touchdowns in his first year, Wyoming finished third in the Mountain West, behind national powers TCU and Boise State.
He does not play like a freshman, Addazio said. It will be a real challenge to contain him, and were well aware of that. We have to play well on defense for sure.
The Owls, which finished in second place in the MAC East behind Ohio, have played tremendous defense all season and roll into Saturdays game winners of three straight. But no game is bigger than this one.
And after losing their 2009 bowl game and getting snubbed for a 2010 bid, the Owls are hungry to win their first bowl game in 32 years, if for no other reason than to prove to outsiders that a consistently dominant football program exists in North Philadelphia.
Everyones hyped, Brown said. Were trying to get over the hump so we can put Temple on a higher pedestal.
For Addazio, whos done a terrific job directing the team in the wake of former coach Al Goldens departure, its already been emotional thinking about the seniors who will wear the pads for the final time. And for the past two weeks, he keeps saying that this will be Temples championship game and that he expects his team to play with endless emotion, energy and passion.
But while winning the New Mexico Bowl will certainly mark one of the great moments in the schools athletic history, Addazio also cautioned that a loss will do little to slow down the growth of the program.
People are tremendously excited for Temple. Its undeniable whats happening here, Addazio said. One game doesnt define whether or not weve had a successful year. Its very important to us but it doesnt define us.
We play a great level of football here at Temple. And were here to stay.
E-mail Dave Zeitlin at firstname.lastname@example.org