Temple running back Jahad Thomas could feel the spring in his step. He rediscovered his old zip, and in his opinion and that of his teammates, it couldn't have come at a more opportune time. The 5-foot-10, 188-pound junior had taken quite a pounding this season and was feeling the wear and tear.
He had sore ribs that came in a hard-fought 24-20 loss to Notre Dame. In addition, there were the usual bumps and bruises, and Thomas' production dipped.
Then came Saturday when he rushed for 119 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries in a 27-3 win over visiting UConn that clinched the American Athletic Association East Division title.
That win earned Temple (10-2) a berth in the inaugural AAC championship on Saturday at West Division champion Houston.
"I felt like my old self," Thomas said Tuesday after practice.
The "old" Thomas was quite a player. Saturday was his first 100-yard rushing game since he gained 199 yards in the sixth game, a 30-16 home victory over Central Florida.
In the first three games after the loss to Notre Dame, Thomas gained 166 yards on 43 carries. That included a season-low 34 yards on 12 carries in the Owls' impressive 31-12 win over Memphis on Nov. 21. That was the only game in which Thomas hasn't scored this year.
He has rushed for 1,188 yards and 17 touchdowns this season. A healthy and rejuvenated Thomas is crucial against Houston (11-1), which is coming off a 52-31 win over Navy that clinched the West Division title.
Thomas said he began feeling like his old self on the Friday before the UConn game. "Up until then I still felt a little banged-up," he said.
What was encouraging to Thomas was that he was just as strong late in the UConn game. In the fourth quarter, he exploded for a 60-yard touchdown run that increased Temple's lead to 27-0.
It was well before that run that Temple quarterback P.J. Walker had a good feeling about Thomas, his former high school teammate in Elizabeth, N.J.
"When I saw him make a few moves early in the game, I said, 'Yes, he is back and he is good,' " Walker said. "Just giving him a chance to get into open space and not get hit a lot and protect his body . . . he was able to go out there and play."
Houston coach Tom Herman said he has great respect for Thomas. "Their offense goes through the tailback and he's having a heck of a year, Jahad is," Herman said.
Thomas, who was converted from cornerback partway through last season, might have caught some people off guard with his production. He led Temple with just 384 rushing yards last year. He had no rushing touchdowns and says this year's output is what he expected.
"I haven't surprised myself," he said. "This season has been great, but there is still football to be played."
The season has been long, the nagging injuries have mounted, but Thomas feels rejuvenated, especially with Temple playing for the AAC crown.
"This is what we play for, big games like this and championships," he said. "Just to play with these guys, especially this group of seniors, has been great."