Perhaps, if super freshman Bernard Pierce hadn't banged up his shoulder against Kent State on Nov. 21, selection of Temple's offensive Most Valuable Player award would have followed the course of least resistance and gone to one of the more spectacularly gifted skill-position players ever to suit up for the Owls.

Had he not been hurt, the 6-foot, 212-pound Pierce - who didn't even crack the starting lineup until the third game of the season - might have added another 200 to 300 rushing yards to his eye-opening season total of 1,308, which as it was is the second-highest total for a Temple running back since Paul Palmer ran for 1,866 yards in finishing second to Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde in the voting for the 1986 Heisman Trophy. Give Pierce those four missed or limited-use games and he might have approached the magical 2,000-yard mark.

Under normal circumstances, it probably would have been unthinkable to hand an MVP award to someone other than the guy challenging Palmer's season rushing record. But it's what happened after Pierce went down that illustrated how very important those large bodies that opened the holes for him really are.

Filling Pierce's shoes - figuratively, if not literally - was another freshman, Matt Brown, a 5-5, 167-pound sprite who, until the Akron game on Nov. 13, had carried the ball just nine times for 51 yards. Getting the bulk of the rushing attempts in Pierce's stead, Brown amassed 395 yards in the final three games of the regular season, with 156 and two touchdowns against Kent State and 172 yards and another TD against Ohio.

If Pierce's backup could put up numbers like that, the reasoning went, maybe a little more credit should go to the road-graders up front who opened gaps that sometimes resembled E-ZPass lanes.

"I couldn't believe it at first," left tackle Devin Tyler said of the announcement at Temple's annual football banquet that he and five other O-linemen were sharing offensive MVP honors. "When I heard 'these guys,' I was like, oh, man.

"We had gotten a little recognition during the season for doing a good job, but never anything like this. It was a big surprise. I was overwhelmed."

Along with Tyler, fellow honorees include left guards Steve Caputo and Wayne Tribue, right guard Colin Madison, right tackle Darius Morris and center John Palumbo. Morris, a first-team All-Mid-American Conference selection, also received the "Top Hog" award as best offensive lineman and was joined on the first-team All-MAC by Madison. Tyler was second-team All-MAC, Palumbo third-team.

"Clearly, they were the difference in this season by the way they protected the quarterback, the toughness they brought, the energy they brought, the work ethic and discipline they brought - and, obviously, the change in our running game," Temple coach Al Golden said of the decision to honor the O-line as a group. "There can be no greater contrast in our team the previous 3 years to this team other than the development of the offensive line."

Now comes the hard part for Temple's newest and heaviest (an average of 310 pounds per man) athletic celebrities: the Dec. 29 EagleBank Bowl matchup with UCLA, whose strength is a defensive front anchored by junior tackle Brian Price, an almost unblockable run-stuffer. How well Temple's two-headed rushing monster - Pierce, who is again healthy, and Brown, figure to split carries - fare against the Bruins will go a long way toward determining which team leaves the field at RFK Stadium in Washington with smiles on their faces.

"It's a very talented group," Golden said of the Bruins. "Don't let the six losses fool you. All six of those teams are bowl-eligible, and five of them are [or were] ranked in the top 25.

"If we don't keep our focus, if we think it's just a vacation, this team is good enough to really, really put it to us."

And if the 6-2, 300-pound Price turns those E-ZPass lanes into road-closed signs, the path to success becomes that much steeper for the Owls.

"I thought [Penn State All-America Jared] Odrick was the best we've faced, but some of our coaches were saying this guy is better," Golden said of Price. "After we played Penn State, I didn't think we'd see anybody as good as Odrick. But our offensive staff say this Price kid is better.

"He's a heck of a football player - quick off the ball, can flatten linemen, is very disruptive."

Tyler said Price "dominates games," but in winning nine games Temple has gone from being the dominated to dominators more often than not. If Price and Co. are to stuff the Owls, they'll have to prove it on the field, not with press clippings.

"One of the biggest things we had to do as a team was to believe in ourselves," Tyler said of the lingering impression around the country that the Owls are a flash in the pan. "As long as we can do that, it doesn't matter who doesn't believe in us."