PHILADELPHIA, Pa. -- After years and years of losses, all it took for the Temple Owls (10-2) to win their second-ever division title was a new conference.
The Owls clinched the American Athletic Conference's East Division with a win Saturday night over the Connecticut Huskies (6-6). Temple's defense and running game dominated throughout, as the final home game resulted in a resounding 27-3 win. UConn was held to eight three-and-outs in the contest.
It was also just the second time in school history that the Owls have won ten games in a season, and they have a chance to shatter that mark next week, as they travel to Houston for the AAC championship game.
"As you can tell, they were way more prepared than us," said Huskies wideout Noel Thomas, who finished with five catches and 63 yards on the night. "They were the better team tonight."
Senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich, as he has all year, led the defense with 11 tackles and one sack. The Chuck Bednarik Award candidate faced a UConn team stemming from his home state of Connecticut, and getting a win with that added meaning was the perfect end to his regular season.
"We just went back to our basics. As weird as it sounds, that's all we did," said Matakevich. "We focused on the little details and it clearly showed out there tonight."
That fierce Owls D held its opponent without a touchdown for the second straight week, just giving up a late 45 yarder with 5:51 remaining and the team up 27-0 already. Temple scored in every quarter, finishing the Huskies off in the fourth with an 60-yard explosion and score from running back Jahad Thomas.
Thomas scored the team's first TD as well, taking a carry in from nine yards out on Temple's second drive. That drive of under two minutes came off a poor 28-yard punt from Justin Wain, and took just four plays - three by Thomas - to hit paydirt.
Temple tacked on a field goal in the second quarter to go up 10-0 by halftime. Midway through, UConn had managed just 61 total yards. But coach Matt Rhule's team knew, after blowing a 21-0 lead two seasons ago on senior night, that they had to execute even better in the second half and finish off their win.
"'Perseverance conquers' has been the story of this team over the last three years. It’s really the motto of Temple University," said Rhule. "We tried to be conservative tonight and play for field position. I thought everyone stepped up tonight."
On their first drive of the third, P.J. Walker led Temple downfield for another field goal, making it 13-0. A Romond Deloatch touchdown catch on a fade route was called back after a booth review the next series, but the following play was an out route right back to Deloatch on the left side of the field for the score from six yards out. UConn added just four yards in the third quarter and the Owls led 20-0 going into the final period.
Jahad Thomas' monster run from 60 yards out all-but iced the game, putting the Owls up 27-0 with all the momentum they could hold. Thomas, who had been banged up the last couple of weeks, rotated around with David Hood and Jager Gardner to be on the field for the biggest moments, and he finished with 129 yards and a pair of scores. The Huskies totaled 138 on the day on the other side of the field, and rushed for a mere nine on 26 attempts.
Quarterback P.J. Walker finished with 160 yards and a touchdown on the day, and after kneeling it from Connecticut's 17 to end the game, the injured Tavon Young and John Christopher on the field for the final play, Temple could finally host the trophy for winning the East Division.
The Owls will face Houston, the winner of the West Division, next week for the inaugural AAC title. There's not much time to celebrate, as it's back to the drawing board to prepare for the one-loss Cougars.
"We don’t work all year to get to the championship," said Matakevich. "We want to win."
'What's next' for these Temple Owls of 2015?