ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Bernard Pierce set the tone, for Temple's first bowl victory in 32 years.
It certainly wasn't the first time he's done that in as an Owl. But it might have been the last.
Yesterday at New Mexico's University Stadium the junior running back from the Glen Mills School finally found a way, like his team, to finish off a season. It was hardly coincidental, since it's mostly been that kind of relationship. Soon he'll have a life decision to make. He can enter the NFL draft a year early, or come back to North Broad Street to work on breaking even more records.
He's already filed the necessary paperwork to do so, as have many other underclassmen. He can still withdraw his name from consideration, after going through the evaluation process to try and find out exactly what the pros think of him. One website that deals with such matters had him rated as the 10th-best prospect at his position, which would seem to indicate that at the moment he projects as somewhere along the lines of a mid-to-late third-round pick. But things change. And all it takes is one team to fall in love with your talent.
Pierce could always return and try to improve his stock. And run the risk of maybe getting injured, something that's dogged him throughout his college career.
By mid-January he'll have to make that call. But for now, he can relish this moment.
He helped the Owls (9-4) left no doubt, in getting their first victory this season over a team that finished with a winning record. And it started early. On the first possession, they went 90 yards in 13 plays and took over 6 minutes off the clock. Pierce, who carried eight times on the drive, scored from the 1. The next time they got the ball, they took nine plays and 4:11 to go 69 yards. Again, Pierce went in from a yard out. And the rout was very much on.
They had imposed their will. And Wyoming (8-5), which had finished third in the Mountain West behind TCU and Boise State, was never the same.
The final was 37-15. In reality, it wasn't even that close.
And it all began with that initial, impactful push.
"You could tell our team was ready," said first-year coach Steve Addazio. "When we get up we like to go pound that rock. That helps our defense. That's our philosophy."
Pierce would get 100 of Temple's 255 rushing yards, on 25 of its 51 carries. The Most Outstanding Player award wound up going to third-year sophomore quarterback Chris Coyer, who accounted for 169 yards and a touchdown through the air on 8-of-12 passing, and ran for 71 more on a dozen attempts. But it could have just as easily have gone to Pierce, just for being the catalyst. The Owls have been a different team this season when they jump on top.
"It was a big deal in this game," said Coyer. "We knew (Wyoming) had an explosive offense. Through the year it's been big for us. It opens everything else up, for what we can do. Even though we were ahead, we knew the momentum could swing at any time. So it was really big this game in particular."
Pierce didn't make himself available afterward, so we don't know how he felt about it. Too bad. It would have been nice to hear his take on things. But that's become his habit this season, especially when things weren't going well. This time he lingered in the locker room. By the time he emerged and met up with his family and friends, the team buses were ready to roll. So much for that, even though it's certainly his right.
Regardless, it's been a momentous career, albeit somewhat of an uneven one. He gained over 1,350 yards as a freshman, and nearly 1,500 this year. To go with 27 TDs. But along the way there were speed bumps. He got hurt late in his first season, and his absence might have cost the Owls the MAC East title. Then, in the come-from-ahead bowl loss to UCLA, he again went out with an injury that again probably made a difference. Last year, after a preseason Heisman Trophy campaign that apparently was not his idea backfired, it was more of the same. He was missing in action late, as the Owls lost their final two games to get left out of the postseason picture.
But this year he was determined to make it through in mainly one piece. And for the most part, he did. He played with a sore hamstring in two midseason games. And he only missed one, after taking a hit to the head in early November at Ohio. Yet he made it to the finish line, and got there with strength to spare. Never a bad thing.
There's no denying his ability. It's already taken him far. The lone remaining question concerns the ceiling. Not to mention the immediate future.
"He's become a much better practice player," Addazio said. "He's worked on his physical and mental toughness. That all goes with it. He's more durable. He's finished games, finished the season. There's more maturity. He's learned that. It's part of the progression."
It's been some journey, one that's not over. It's just a matter of whether it continues on North Broad Street or for one of 32 possibilities at the next level. Either way, it figures to be worth monitoring.