Temple center Brendan McGowan described his time as an Owls backup as sitting in the shadows, but for the last month, he has been in the sun. Temple's depth chart suggested McGowan would take over as starter next season. A knee injury to Kyle Friend moved up the timetable.

For newly initiated Owls fans, Friend had to be considered Temple's top returning offensive player. He wasn't just a captain as a junior but as a sophomore, too.

"Before the year I would have said we'll be a really good offensive line as long as Kyle plays,"Owls coach Matt Rhule said this week. "He's kind of our rock."

Rhule believes one reason this is his best Temple team is that it's his deepest Temple team. The line held together over the last month with the new man snapping the ball.

"To get this point, to get to this championship game, it's not about your front-line players," Rhule said. "It's really about your twos, your threes, your fours."

Saturday afternoon in Houston, Temple will play the host Cougars for the American Athletic Association title. Houston is favored on merit, top five in the AAC in rushing and passing offense, with a defense to match it. To win the league championship, it may take Temple's entire depth chart.

"At one point on the depth chart - this is not to embarrass him - but David Hood was five," Rhule said, referring to the redshirt freshman tailback, noting Hood's play against Memphis. "We beat a ranked team with him carrying the bulk of the load."

The Connecticut game on Saturday provided another high-profile example. Owls cornerback Artrel Foster wasn't even the top backup, more a special-teams regular, until starter Tavon Young, another Temple mainstay, went down.

Young warmed up against Connecticut but couldn't go. Meanwhile, Young's primary backup, Nate Hairston, Temple's main nickel back, had the flu. Hairston, a converted wide receiver, was dressed and ready but the decision was made not to wear him out. Hairston and Foster split the position, two series at a time. Foster got the start.

"We've got different packages. so our technique is different for those packages," Foster said. "I've never played like actual DB."

"He went out there and played fast,"Rhule said, mentioning that defensive coordinator Phil Snow asked Young to specifically watch his replacements. "Tavon came over and said, 'They're playing well, they're playing really well.' "

As it happens, both Young and Friend are back on the field and expected to play Saturday. McGowan hit the injury list this time. When he left the game for a time against UConn - "to think we would be down to our third center at one point in that game,"Rhule said.

It didn't take injuries to show Temple had depth at other positions. Even though Temple is pretty well balanced between run and pass, six wide receivers have caught at least 10 passes and have combined for 15 TD catches spread between five of them.

Temple proved to be a tough matchup this season because it was hard to find an area of weakness to exploit on either side of the ball. The defensive line showed its depth of top-line talent with defensive ends Nate D. Smith, Haason Reddick and Praise Martin-Oguike taking turns grabbing starring roles. Smith talked earlier this year about how their ability to stay fresh has been a key factor.

The backups obviously had to use their time in the shadows well.

"I learned a lot from Tavon," Foster said of watching Young, the starter. "When he's in that position, he's just very calm and very confident. I tried to take that to my mind."

Foster also said secondary coach Fran Brown doesn't let the backups wander away mentally.

"Coach Fran, he coaches everyone the same, he doesn't favor one guy," Foster said. "Everybody knows what they're doing so when it's time to go, you're on point like everybody else."

That's the hope on any football team. It doesn't always happen. The switch to McGowan, a redshirt junior who had started some games last season at guard, was key not just because Friend was a star at the position. Center is always crucial.

"He's one of the best centers in the country - watching what he does, how he handles things, how he prepares for games," McGowan said of his time watching Friend from the shadows. "Just taking in everything I could while I wasn't playing."

As for grading himself, McGowan said, "I'm kind of hard on myself, so there's things I did right, there's things I did wrong. But I would say I've been playing pretty well recently. I've been making most of the calls, seeing almost everything."

If that weren't true, the 10-2 Owls may not be headed to Texas for a milestone game. Rhule called it "one of the story lines of this year for us - some of our best players have gotten hurt and guys have really stepped up."

@jensenoffcampus