ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Temple knows it has to win this game.

Just playing competitively here Saturday in the New Mexico Bowl means nothing. For a program looking to improve its national profile, a victory over Wyoming at University Stadium is a must.

For as good as the Owls (8-4) have been in recent seasons, they've lost the big games and struggled down the stretch.

"So a win tomorrow would just change that all around for us," senior outside linebacker Tahir Whitehead said during Friday's news conference. "It would send the younger guys into the next season with a good feeling. That's what it's all about right now."

On paper, the Owls are expected to get their much-needed victory. Temple is a seven-point favorite. And judging by people's responses here, one would assume the Owls were favored by more.

Wyoming beat-writers don't think the Cowboys (8-4), who finished third in the Mountain West Conference behind national powers Texas Christian and Boise State, have a chance. And Wyoming fans who attended Friday's bowl kickoff luncheon stood in awe as Temple walked into the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino ballroom.

Comments like, "Look at the size of Temple," and, "Man, they are huge," could be heard.

Perhaps the Owls' biggest size advantage is in the trenches. With players averaging 318 pounds, Temple's offensive line has a 71-pound advantage over Wyoming's defensive front seven. That difference may make the Owls' running game unstoppable.

Temple has the Football Bowl Subdivision's seventh-best rushing offense, averaging 256.7 yards per game.

Junior tailback Bernard Pierce has rushed for 1,381 yards to go with a school-record 25 touchdowns. Matt Brown, a junior backup, has 861 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and five scores. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Chris Coyer is also a solid runner. He heads into his fourth straight start with 491 yards (8.6 per-carry average) and three touchdowns.

The trio is expected to have its way against a Wyoming team ranked 115th out of 120 FBS squads in rushing defense. The Cowboys are giving up 230.1 rushing yards per game. They yielded more than 300 yards against Nebraska (333), Utah State (303), Texas Christian (390), and Air Force (312).

"From our standpoint, defensively, we have to be able to find a way to slow their run game down and not give up big plays," Wyoming coach Dave Christensen said.

"We also have to maintain possession over on offense with scoring drives and not going three-and-out."

A lot of that will depend on quarterback Brett Smith.

The 6-foot-3, 195-pound true freshman has completed 233 of 385 passes for 2,495 yards and 18 touchdowns to go with eight interceptions. Smith also leads the team in rushing touchdowns (10) and is second in rushing yards (645).

His 3,140 yards of total offense shattered the Mountain West freshman record (2,691) set by TCU quarterback Andy Dalton in 2007.

"We expect him to come out and have his best game of the year," Christensen said.

In addition to having success running the ball on offense, the Owls know their defense must apply pressure on the young quarterback.

"I would say that he's similar to the Ohio quarterback," said Temple defensive end Adrian Robinson, comparing Smith to Tyler Tettleton.

Tettleton had 310 all-purpose yards in a 35-31 victory over Temple on Nov. 2.

Like Tettleton, Robinson said, Smith constantly makes plays for his team. But the Owls hope to make things uncomfortable for the signal-caller and force him into making mistakes.

"It would be a great honor to go out here with a bowl win," Whitehead said. "Obviously, finishing the season 9-4 again and ending on a good note would mean a lot."

Contact staff writer Keith Pompey at 215-854-2939, kpompey@phillynews.com, or @pompeysgridlock on Twitter. Read his blog, "Owls Inq," at www.philly.com/owlsinq