By the third game of the season, Temple coach Al Golden was ready to elevate freshman running back Bernard Pierce.

"Coach asked me before he put me in, 'Are you ready to go? Do you think you can carry the ball 20 times?' " said Pierce, who at the time was rotating with Lamar McPherson and Kee-ayre Griffin. "I said, 'Yes.' "

Though he didn't start against Buffalo that day, the 6-foot, 210-pound Pierce had an 18-yard touchdown run on his way to picking up 116 yards on 20 carries in a 37-13 win over the defending Mid-American Conference champion.

In victories at Eastern Michigan and against visiting Ball State that followed, Pierce rushed for 180 and 125 yards in his first two games as a starter.

Among freshmen, only Dion Lewis of Pittsburgh, with 738 rushing yards, has more than Pierce, who has 489 and is the first rookie in Temple history to run for 100 or more yards in three consecutive games.

With a running game that has come to life behind Pierce and a much-improved line, Temple leads the MAC's Eastern Division with a 3-0 record and will take a 3-2 overall mark into its nonleague game against visiting Army (3-3) on Saturday.

Pierce leads Temple with five touchdowns, all on the ground.

"Sure," was Golden's response when asked whether he expected Pierce to contribute so much so soon. "He's powerful. He's a downhill runner. And I guess you would call it deceptive speed. He's getting to the corner, and he doesn't look like it, just because that's the way he runs.

"He can make people miss or he can run them over, which is unique."

At this time last year, Pierce was in his second year at Glen Mills, a school for youths who have run into trouble with the law and been sent by court order to the Delaware County facility.

Pierce, who is from Ardmore, played freshman ball at Lower Merion High School and spent time with the varsity as a sophomore.

Why was he sent to Glen Mills?

"Hanging out with the wrong crowd . . . not using my head . . . not thinking and getting into trouble," Pierce said. "But Glen Mills built my foundation. I wasn't disciplined at all before I went to Glen Mills. Glen Mills got me focused. If I didn't go there, I wouldn't be in college."

Committed to Glen Mills for a year, Pierce chose to stay at the boarding school for his senior year as well.

Pierce was a second-team all-state player as a junior, and ran a 10.6-second 100-meter dash for the Glen Mills track team that was the fastest in the state. As a senior, Pierce averaged 143.4 yards a game while piling up 1,578 yards and 26 touchdowns.

The team made the playoffs both years, and Rutgers, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse came calling along with Temple.

"I didn't want to go anywhere," said Pierce, who was raised by his mother, Tammy. "I had visited Temple a couple of times on my own, and I liked it. I came in expecting to get playing time, but I came in hoping to make an impact and help anywhere I could. But I wasn't expecting to come in and start."

The season almost got off to a disappointing start for Pierce when the NCAA clearinghouse was deciding whether he was eligible to play as a freshman. Two days before the Sept. 3 opener against Villanova, he was given the OK.

"It was nerve-racking," Pierce said. "I was trusting that [Temple] would take care of it, and they did. It was a relief."

Contact staff writer Kevin Tatum at 215-854-2583 or ktatum@phillynews.com.