By Peter Gleason
Temple football is the talk of the town!
After knocking off big-time Penn State 27-10 on Sept. 5 at the Linc, the Owls have run off win after win on their way to 6-0.
A seventh win to open the season would set a new standard.
The 22nd-ranked Owls go for the best start in program history tonight when they visit East Carolina for an American Athletic Conference showdown.
A stingy run defense and a productive ground game of its own have helped Temple (6-0, 3-0) match the program’s best start, set most recently in 1974. A 30-16 win over Central Florida on Saturday helped it crack the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1979.
“It’s nice that there’s some national recognition,” coach Matt Rhule (above) said. “People are respecting Temple and the way our guys have played and who we’ve played.”
It’s hard to ignore the defensive numbers the last two weeks. After giving up 223 rushing yards in a 37-3 win at Charlotte on Oct. 2, Temple limited Tulane and UCF to 75 combined in a pair of home wins. Those were the third and fourth games the Owls have held opponents under 80 rushing yards, and they rank eighth in the nation at 91.3 allowed per game. They’re one of eight FBS teams to allow three touchdowns or fewer on the ground.
Temple has 13 rushing touchdowns of its own – two more than it had last season – after Jahad Thomas found the end zone three times and finished with 199 yards on the ground against UCF. The junior leads the AAC with 756 rushing yards and is third with 10 touchdowns while adding 15 catches for 181 yards and a score.
The Owls committed four turnovers and trailed winless UCF 16-14 entering the fourth quarter, their first deficit after three this season. Thomas, though, ran for 123 yards and two touchdowns in the final 15 minutes.
“We’ve got something special in front of us,” said senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich. “It’s ours for the taking but we can’t let up at all.”
Temple, which has surrendered just 244 total yards the last two weeks, can improve to 4-0 in conference play for the first time since starting 7-0 in the MAC in 2009.
“It’s probably very exciting for our fans and our families and friends,” Rhule said. “I think within this building, it’s just recognition of what’s past and we’re focused on what’s next.”
A sold-out, prime-time home game against Notre Dame looms next week, but the Owls must get through East Carolina first.
The Pirates (4-3, 2-1) did nearly everything right the last time they faced a Top 25 team, beating No. 17 Virginia Tech 28-21 in Blacksburg on Sept. 13, 2014, but were a mess in almost every phase when they visited Temple on Nov. 1. East Carolina outgained the Owls 428-135 but lost five of its eight fumbles while Temple didn’t lose any of its four in a 20-10 win in Philadelphia.
Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill called Saturday’s 30-17 victory over Tulsa “one of the best wins I’ve had as a head coach, period.” East Carolina led 23-0 through three quarters thanks to a Josh Hawkins 100-yard interception return for a touchdown, a Chris Hairston 12-yard TD catch and three Davis Plowman field goals.
A victory over Temple would hand control of the AAC East to the Pirates, but McNeill insists his team hasn’t talked about the scenario.
“Not one second. Not one syllable. Not one word,” he said. “Our thought process isn’t going to change… We know we have a great opponent in Temple. They’re a great team. They’re not winning by luck. It’s execution. That’s an uncontrollable.”
For now, control remains with Temple.
“I think our guys know that the target’s there each and every game,” Rhule said. “At the end of the day, all control is (with) us.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.