HOUSTON - Friday afternoon, Temple's equipment truck was parked outside an end zone at TDECU Stadium. The Owls took a noon charter to Texas after a morning practice on campus. Head coach Matt Rhule headed straight from the airport to a news conference.
That was the logistical journey to Saturday's American Athletic Conference title game. The real path included all sorts of notable plays, some that helped define Temple's 10-2 regular season, some that changed it.
It was the kind of season where I could come up with a list of big plays, then ask for Rhule's thoughts, and he'd start talking about a number of entirely different plays. We'll get to his later.
In advance of the AAC title game matchup with host Houston, here's the official Inquirer list:
1. Temple currently 22d nationally in the official rankings, would not be ranked at all with a Massachusetts loss on the books. Maybe the most impactful play was also the craziest. Just after UMass had taken a lead in the last two minutes, Temple's Praise Martin-Oguike blocked an extra point. Teammate Stephaun Marshall picked it up. About to get tackled, he lateraled the ball to a third teammate Will Hayes, who went the other way. Two points for the Owls instead of one for UMass, and the Owls ultimately won by two.
2. If you want to pick a high point of Temple's season - a moment in time - how about when tailback Jahad Thomas took a fourth-down pitch, juked a Notre Dame linebacker and went untouched into the end zone. A 1-yard run for the ages. Early fourth quarter, Temple and Notre Dame were tied. All possibilities were suddenly on the table.
3. With 4 minutes, 45 seconds left, Temple's Austin Jones kicked a 36-yard field goal, putting the Owls ahead, possibilities realized.
Temple held that lead for 156 more seconds.
4. Pick a sack, any sack. Temple had 10 of them against Penn State, taking out the Nittany Lions for the first time since 1941, landing this 2015 season on foreign soil. We'll pick the first sack as the biggest one. Penn State was up by 10-0 after two drives - no apparent sign of trouble - when Owls linebacker Jarred Alwan sacked Christian Hackenberg on the first play of the third drive. The Nits went three and out. They never scored again. The sacks kept coming.
5. Temple was hanging on to a 14-12 lead over Memphis, late in the third quarter at the Linc, when quarterback P.J. Walker dropped back to pass on third and 10 at his 25-yard line. A Memphis blitzer had a straight line for Walker . . . the momentum was swinging hard toward the visitors. Except Owls freshman running back David Hood got his body in front of the blitzer and Walker took off on a 16-yard run. After Walker hit Ventell Bryant for 31 yards on the next play, Owls scored 17 unanswered points for their most impressive win of the season.
6. East Carolina was another road game up for grabs, the Owls down by 14-10 starting the fourth quarter on the road. This time, Walker hit Robby Anderson with a 23-yard scoring pass on a second and 13 with 3:31 left, putting Temple ahead in another must-win. (Honorable mention to either of Sharif Finch's two fourth-quarter blocked punts - one a partial block, one full.)
7. The Cincinnati game, a road trip against the preseason AAC favorite, right off the Penn State win, told us the Owls were a serious contender in the AAC. So pick your Jahad Thomas play. It's tempting to take his 100-yard kick return to open the second half, to push underdog Temple's lead to 17-6. But when Cincinnati answered with a touchdown in that same minute, a 56-yard Thomas run just 41 seconds later allowed Temple the breathing room it needed to survive.
8. We need a Tyler Matakevich play on this list. One of his three Penn State sacks? His interception of a tipped pass that sealed the Cincinnati game? How about this one at SMU: The Mustangs had just closed within 45-40 on a 80-yard kick return and then their defense held. With a chance to move ahead, SMU couldn't move. On fourth and 4, under three minutes left, Matakevich batted down a pass. Crisis averted. And he probably picked up another opposing coach's vote for AAC defensive player of the year.
9. That crazy extra point didn't settle things at UMass. The Owls were still down by a point, 80 seconds left. Walker got the Owls downfield, the key play a 12-yard pass to John Christopher, who got out of bounds at the 15 with 12 seconds left, setting up a 32-yard game-winning field goal by Jones.
Instead of listing a tenth, we asked Rhule for one.
"I have to pick one?" Rhule said Friday afternoon.
"Here's what comes into my head," Rhule said. "Third and 11, Jahad against Penn State, that run that cut all the way back and dived into end zone to put the game out of reach. I would have said Sharif Finch picking the ball off against Penn State and running it back."
He hit some more, including the Walker to Anderson TD against East Carolina, the Thomas kick return against Cincinnati. Talking about the UMass big plays, including the crazy blocked extra point that went the other way, Rhule said, "I think of that throw P.J. made before the field goal."
It's interesting and appropriate that Rhule started with two plays against his own alma mater. The path to respect and attention for Temple football was always obvious. Beat Penn State. Once the Owls did that, the floodgates were open and the big plays kept coming.