Temple's players vowed all week that they would treat Saturday's game against Connecticut like any other. There would be no looking at the potential prize, immense as it might be, just the opponent.
The Owls kept their vow while earning one of the biggest football wins in school history. For the second straight week, the defense was smothering and the offense more than efficient as Temple beat Connecticut, 27-3, to clinch the American Athletic Conference East Division title at Lincoln Financial Field.
Temple (10-2, 7-1 AAC) earned a berth in the conference's inaugural championship game. The Owls will play at West Division champion Houston at noon Saturday.
It marked the first time that Temple has won 10 games in the regular season.
"This is such an amazing feeling," said linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who had a team-high 11 tackles and was among the 22 players honored on senior night. "To go 2-10, 6-6, and now to be 10-2, I don't think too many programs could do that, and you have to give credit to all these seniors who just stuck it out."
Of course, the success could have a price. Footballscoop.com reported during the game that Missouri plans to meet with Temple's third-year coach, Matt Rhule, on Sunday about its vacant head coaching position. The site reported that Missouri met with Toledo head coach Matt Campbell on Saturday.
"You guys know me, I am not going to talk about anything," Rhule said when asked about the report after the game. "This program is about these kids. Anybody who throws my name in things is a credit to the players and the administration."
Temple athletic director Pat Kraft politely declined comment, but sources told The Inquirer the school is trying to keep Rhule.
UConn (6-6, 4-4) was playing its best football of the season, handing Houston its lone loss last week in a 20-17 home victory, and the Huskies had three consecutive victories.
They played without starting quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, who was sidelined with a head injury. They had trouble moving the ball against the Owls defense.
Temple mirrored its effort from last week, when the Owls didn't allow high-scoring Memphis a touchdown during a 31-12 home win.
Jahad Thomas got Temple on its way by scoring on a 9-yard run in the first quater for his 16th rushing touchdown of the year. Thomas later added his 17th touchdown, a 60-yard run that padded the lead to 27-0 with 8 minutes, 40 seconds left.
He finished with 119 yards and the two scores on 20 carries.
Temple didn't take many chances on offense, preferring to go conservative, especially with the way the defense was performing.
A signature play for the defense came late in the first quarter, with the Owls leading, 7-0, and UConn facing fourth and 1 from the Temple 41-yard line. Arkeel Newsome, the Huskies' leading rusher, was leveled by linebacker Jarred Alwan, who forced a fumble that was recovered by Stephaun Marshall. The Temple junior returned the ball 7 yards to the UConn 42.
Temple held Connecticut to 138 total yards, including 9 rushing.
An example of Temple's resolve came late in the third quarter, when P.J. Walker hit Romond Deloatch in the right corner of the end zone for a 6-yard scoring pass. The play was overturned, however, with the officials saying that Deloatch didn't maintain possession.
On the next play, Walker hit Deloatch again for a 6-yard scoring pass, this time in the left corner of the end zone, increasing Temple's lead to 20-0 with 41 seconds left in the third quarter.
With the way Temple's defense was playing, that was more than enough of a cushion.