By Tom Dougherty, CSNPhilly.com
Everything Temple football has fought for this season is within reach this Saturday in Tampa, Florida.
A win over the University of South Florida clinches the East Division and a berth in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
“We know what’s at stake,” senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich said Tuesday at Edberg-Olson Hall. “You really can’t start thinking about that stuff.
“You just have to do what you’ve been doing since the beginning — get back to our process and that’s what coaches have been saying.”
Temple improved to 8-1 last Friday night with a 60-40 win over SMU, which is also the last team to score 40 or more points against the Owls’s defense in a 59-49 win on Oct. 26, 2013.
On Sunday, the Owls moved up to No. 21 in the AP poll. Last week, they were ranked No. 22 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings and stayed No.22 this week.
With an opportunity to seal their spot in the conference championship game on the line, the Owls also are in play to host the title game.
They are now 5-0 in the AAC, and the team with the best conference record hosts the game. No. 24 Houston (9-0) and No. 21 Navy (7-1) are also 5-0 in conference.
Houston hosts No. 25 Memphis on Saturday night, while Navy plays SMU.
Since Temple does not play either Houston or Navy this season, the championship site would come down to the third tiebreaker — overall winning percentage.
In team meetings Sunday, head coach Matt Rhule talked to his players about the importance of this week’s game.
“I always talk about things like that because I know they’re hearing it, but that’s over,” Rhule said of clinching the division. “Saturday will be a great test. I’m expecting us to play our best game.
“I wouldn’t say we’re playing our best football yet. I hope that will be the next three games.”
Temple has three games left on its schedule: USF on Saturday, Memphis the week after and UConn on Nov. 28. But back to giving up 40 points on Friday night …
“It was frustrating, but at the same time it’s good that it happened so we can get those things corrected,” Matakevich said.
Matakevich led the Owls with nine tackles against the Mustangs, but Temple is a team that prides itself defensively.
Entering the game, the Owls allowed 15.8 points per game. Now, it stands at 18.4. Rhule was quick to point out the defense allowed 31 against SMU — not 40.
SMU got a safety and then returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown.
Rhule also said he wasn’t surprised with the 60-point output, either, as the Owls average 39.4 points per game in conference.
“We’re scoring a lot of points,” he said. “We had a turnover on the last play of the Notre Dame game, but in the actual game part of it, we haven’t had a turnover in three games.
“Those are the things I’m looking at. The only group I’m upset with is the special teams. I thought our special teams production last game really took a step back.”
As for the defense, senior defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis and sophomore cornerback Sean Chandler each said it was refreshing to see the offense have their back against SMU.
“We’ve always known they’re capable of it and it was just a matter of time,” Ioannidis said. “We were just saying, ‘It’s coming, the big game’s coming.’
“Something like that is big for the program. They’re going to keep that moving. They have a great scheme worked up for every game and it was just a matter of time before they popped.”
Saturday’s game against the Bulls offers a third straight contest in which Temple will see a mobile quarterback in sophomore Quinton Flowers.
Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer burned Temple for 143 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, while SMU’s Matt Davis had 102 yards and a touchdown of his own.
What will Temple have to do to contain Flowers?
“We have to tackle better,” Rhule said. “At the end of the day, I thought we were in position to make every tackle last Friday night.
“Matt had some great runs and we weren’t able to tackle in space. Guys have to make that one-on-one tackle.”
While Temple allows 110.7 rushing yards per game — 12th in the nation — the Fighting Irish and Mustangs were able to gain traction on the ground during the last two games.
South Florida (5-4, 3-2) comes into Saturday’s matchup as one of the better teams in the country running the ball, averaging 217 yards — 22nd out of 128 FBS teams.
Sophomore Marlon Mack leads the way with 835 yards and four scores, while Flowers has 657 yards and seven rushing touchdowns.
“When a team has a good run game, it’s a really good challenge,” redshirt junior linebacker Stephaun Marshall said.
“Coach [Phil] Snow always says the run game comes down to two things: Being physical and doing your job, so that’s two things that we’ve strived to do here at Temple.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: See the story on CSNPhilly.com)