ANNAPOLIS, Md. _ Alternating between methodical and quick-striking, Temple got off to a stunning start that paved the way for its first conference football title in nearly five decades.
Scoring on their first three possessions while allowing their defense to flex its considerable muscle, the Owls defeated Navy, 34-10, in the American Athletic Conference championship game Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
A team that went 2-10 in coach Matt Rhule's first season in 2013 is now 10-3. The Owls tied a single-season school record for wins while gaining their seventh consecutive victory. This was Temple's first conference championship since it earned the Middle Atlantic Conference title in 1967.
"We played like champions," Rhule said.
The talk during the past week was that Navy had Temple's kryptonite, the triple-option offense. Temple was slashed by Army's triple-option in a season-opening 28-13 loss. Navy was second nationally with 342.2 yards rushing per game.
In the Army game, the Owls were simply out-toughed, as the coaches like to say.
This time it was Temple that applied the beating, limiting Navy to 168 rushing yards, or 3.8 per carry.
"We were physical against their physicality," Temple defensive coordinator Phil Snow said.
The talk before the game was that a Navy win could have given the Midshipmen (9-3) a chance at the Cotton Bowl.
Yet Western Michigan (13-0) seems to have a grip on the Group of Five berth, despite an underwhelming 29-23 win over Ohio University in the Mid-American Conference title game Friday night.
Now the Owls will await a bowl game, and they could possibly return to this same venue for the Military Bowl on Dec. 27, when the AAC plays the ACC. A person familiar with the situation said Saturday night that Temple wasn't sure yet but that the choice was almost assuredly between the Military Bowl and the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 29, which has the AAC against the SEC.
The caliber of opponent will reportedly play a big role in Temple's bowl decision.
Owls quarterback Phillip Walker, who was in a walking boot with an ankle injury during the week, didn't seem bothered by the injury.
Walker completed 16 of 25 passes for 199 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. He was named the game's most outstanding player.
"I was ready," said Walker, who earned his 28th win as a starting quarterback. "I got a lot of treatment, four times a day."
Walker's toughness has been among his best traits.
"He is so tough and he didn't want anything to get in the way of us winning this championship," all-conference left tackle Dion Dawkins said.
Linebacker Jarred Alwan led the defense with 13 tackles while free safety Sean Chandler added eight plus a forced fumble.
The key for Temple was one of the basic fundamentals of football: tackling.
"We knew we had to tackle them," Chandler said. "They make big play and if you miss a tackle you are in trouble and we definitely focused on it this week."
Owls linebacker Avery Williams was ejected for targeting in the second quarter. Since it occurred in the first half, he will be eligible to play in Temple's bowl game.
Jahad Thomas' 15-yard touchdown run from the slot opened the scoring, ending a 12-play 75-yard drive. The Owls then got a 22-yard touchdown reception from Ventell Bryant, and they increased the lead to 21-0 when Walker found Keith Kirkwood in stride on a deep post for a 56-yard scoring pass with 13 minutes, 44 seconds left in the first half.
Up 21-0, with the way the defense was playing, the Owls had essentially put this one away.
Compounding matters, Navy quarterback Will Worth, who leads FBS players with 25 rushing touchdowns, left the game for good with an injury early in the second quarter as did slotbacks Toneo Gulley and Darryl Bonner.
The Owls hit their way to the title, one that eluded them last year, when they lost at Houston, 24-13, in the inaugural AAC championship game.
This one was redemption, bouncing back from last year and this year as well, when the Owl started 3-3 and few figured they'd be lifting a trophy in the first weekend of December.