No. 21 Temple not taking surging South Florida for granted
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Temple coach Matt Rhule doesn’t want his players to get ahead of themselves.
The 21st-ranked Owls can clinch the American Athletic conference East Division title by beating South Florida on Saturday, however Rhule hasn’t spent a lot of time talking with his players about what’s at stake.
A victory will assure Temple (8-1, 5-0, No. 22 CFP) a berth in the inaugural conference championship game on Dec. 5. USF (5-4, 3-2) has won four of five following a slow start and needs to win one of its remaining three games to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.
In other words, the Bulls have something to play for after winning two and four games the past two seasons under third-year coach Willie Taggart.
“Our focus, I hope, is completely on ourselves. We have to play as well as we can play,” Rhule said.
“Unfortunately for us, when we start thinking about what bowl we’re going to or are we going to win a conference championship we have a tendency to not play quite as well,” the Temple coach added. “I addressed it, then quickly said: ‘Hey, let’s focus on playing as well as we can.’”
That’s essentially the way USF coach Willie Taggart is approaching what he acknowledges is a nice opportunity for a program that’s fallen on hard times since rising as high as No. 2 in the nation eight years ago.
The Bulls trail Temple by two games in the division standings, but feel pretty good about their chances after rebounding from a 1-3 start that included losses to Florida State, Maryland and Memphis.
A bowl berth hardly seemed within reach a month ago, however playing conference rivals Memphis and Navy closer than expected, and beating Syracuse, Connecticut, SMU and East Carolina to surpass the team’s win total for 2014 has changed USF’s outlook on the season.
“What’s gratifying is everyone in our building has stuck with the plan, and it’s starting to work,” Taggart said. “The thing is finish strong, finish like we’re capable of.”
Temple, whose lone loss came two weeks ago against Notre Dame has been ranked in the Top 25 for four consecutive weeks — the longest stretch in school history.
USF is seeking its first victory over a ranked team since the Bulls beat Notre Dame on the road in 2011.
“It would be a huge step in where we’re trying to go,” Taggart said, adding his players understand what type of performance it will take to be successful against Temple.
Some other things to know about the matchup:
ON THE VERGE: Temple running back Jahad Thomas leads the American in rushing with 970 yards, 30 shy of the 13th 1,000-yard season in program history. The junior is averaging nearly 5 yards per carry and has scored 14 touchdowns. “It’ll be a heck of an accomplishment,” Rhule said of Thomas, who arrived at Temple as a defensive back, barreling toward 1,000.
EMERGING: USF’s Marlon Mack led the conference in rushing as a freshman in 2014. He’s second this season, averaging 104.4 yards per game. USF’s offense has really taken off, though, with the development of dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers, who’s thrown for 1,446 yards and 12 touchdowns while rushing for 657 yards and seven TDs. “Running quarterbacks have hurt us,” Rhule noted. “Quinton Flowers is as good as any of them.”
GETTING BETTER: Temple quarterback P.J. Walker ran for one touchdowns and threw for 268 yards and four more TDs in last week’s 60-40 victory over SMU, building on success he had the previous two weeks in a victory over East Carolina and 24-20 loss to Notre Dame. ’I think what we see is him maturing into a big-time quarterback” capable of making an impact with his arm, legs and mind, Rhule said.
STOUT ‘D: Temple leads the American in total defense, allowing 335 yards per game. The Owls are second in scoring defense (18.4). USF is coming off a strong defensive performance against East Carolina, limiting the Pirates to 220 yards and eight first downs in the Bulls’ 22-17 victory.
SIX NOT ENOUGH: USF is trying to become bowl eligible for the first time in five years, but coach Willie Taggart said the team is not focused on that. “Our goal has always been to win the conference. We win the conference, we’ll go to a bowl,” Taggart said. “Just being bowl eligible doesn’t really guarantee anything.”