By Tom Dougherty, CSNPhilly.com
This season, there’s something different inside the walls of Temple football’s Edberg-Olson Hall practice facility than the previous two years.
The Owls are looser, relaxed and are having fun. More importantly, they’re playing for each other.
Being 7-1, ranked No. 23 in the AP poll and No. 22 in the College Football Playoff rankings will allow that, but there’s also something junior quarterback P.J. Walker is doing that helps.
“I always harp on the team — don’t stress about nothing,” Walker said Tuesday. “You get a lot of opportunities in football and you don’t ever know when it’s going to be your last.
“You don’t want to go out there playing stressed and have a bad experience because you’re always bothered by things. Just go out there and have fun.”
Walker has grown up a lot over the last year and, in turn, Temple’s rising program has been elevated into the national spotlight.
The Owls have done that largely because of their top-10 defense and the emergence of Jahad Thomas in the backfield — not because of Walker.
Temple hasn’t asked Walker to do much this season. Its focus has been establishing the run game, which its accomplished. From Walker, Temple has asked of one thing: protect the ball.
In his sophomore season, Walker threw 15 interceptions and lost two fumbles. Through eight games this season, Walker has just four interceptions and two fumbles lost.
His interception in the final moments of Temple’s 24-20 loss to No. 8 Notre Dame was his second in three games but it was not a poor decision from Walker.
Fighting Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell made a strong play on the ball to seal the win for Notre Dame.
Under the lights of Lincoln Financial Field and on national TV, Walker, though his stat line may not say it, had his strongest showing of the season.
“P.J. Walker? He woke up in that last game,” head coach Matt Rhule said. “He took a step. P.J. Walker was out there on Saturday night and realized, ‘I can play with anybody.'”
When the game was over, Walker came out of it completing just 43.3 percent of his passes and threw for 188 yards. He had a touchdown and an interception.
But what the stats don’t show is a quarterback who looked composed and confident against a top-10 team with the nation watching.
Going forward — Temple has four games remaining beginning Friday night in Dallas against a 1-7 SMU team — Walker’s performance against the Irish will help the Owls.
“It brings confidence to everybody,” Walker said. “Guys make big plays on the big stage and they realize they can make plays at any moment in the game.
“Just having that confidence to go out there and be gritty, be tough. Be that cocky guy on the football field.”
Against Notre Dame, Walker displayed an element of his arsenal that’s always been there but hasn’t been present much of this season: running.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound quarterback ran the ball six times Saturday for 38 yards, including two big first downs — a 15-yard scamper and a 21-yarder.
In the Penn State game, Walker separated his left shoulder, which has played into Temple’s decision not to run him. But now, Walker insists he’s 100 percent and his shoulder is fine.
Walker admitted the shoulder did nag him here and there but he was “good to go” on game day. If Saturday night was any indication, Walker could be running more in the near future.
“I’m just getting the feel back for running the ball,” he said. “In the beginning, I wasn’t running the ball as much due to the shoulder but as you saw in the Penn State game, I ran a little bit.
“But I haven’t been scrambling as much as I would have in previous years. I think that comes into play with having a great O-line up front protecting. I don’t need to scramble.”
On Friday, Walker will be without his anchor on the offensive line in Kyle Friend, who’s out “for a while.” He said he’s confident in backup Brendan McGowan, but missing Friend is a big loss for Temple.
One reason he’s more comfortable this season is the addition of quarterback coach Glenn Thomas, who joined the coaching staff in the offseason. Thomas spent the previous three years working with NFL star and Penn Charter product Matt Ryan as the quarterback coach of the Atlanta Falcons under head coach Mike Smith.
“He’s taught me a lot protection-wise,” Walker said of Thomas, “How to see blitzes and different small things that I would never have been able to pick up as fast as I did.”
Picking up blitzes and reading protections will be key going forward, especially if Friend is out for the long term. Another area Thomas has helped is with mechanics and footwork.
Now equipped with a stronger understanding of the game, Walker has done what Temple has asked of him this season: Take care of the ball and manage the game.
“I’m not trying to do too much with the football,” he said. “I’m not forcing the ball too much. We’ve got a running game that’s doing well this year. That’s another big thing for us.
“When you have a dominant running game, the passing game opens itself up. You don’t got guys willing to drop knowing we’re passing the ball.”
Walker’s stats aren’t putting him in the conversation for the Heisman — a 57.5 completion percentage, 1,502 yards and 10 touchdowns — but his new attitude is keeping his team loose.
That’s important for a team with its goal entering the season still very much in reach.
“We still have an opportunity to win the conference championship,” Walker said. “That’s our mentality and we still have an opportunity to go to a big bowl game.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: See the story on CSNPhilly.com)