Kern: Temple QB Walker rose to latest clutch occasion

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Temple’s Phillip Walker catches a ball during Temple football practice.

QUARTERBACKS ARE judged mostly on whether their teams win enough games. And the measure of a successful QB sometimes comes down to whether he can take his offense down the field at the end to turn a loss into a celebration.

Especially when you're a four-year starter.

Phillip Walker, who despite a request to be called by his given first name this season continues to be better known as P.J., has been through a bunch during his college career. But last Saturday night at Central Florida he directed a four-play, 70-yard touchdown drive with no timeouts in the final 32 seconds to give the Owls a 26-25 win they pretty much had to have.

"He just said, 'We're going to win,' '' said sophomore receiver Ventell Bryant, who caught the first three passes on that possession. "We have confidence in him. He's our leader. He's what drives us."

So what more do you need to understand? But Walker remains his harshest critic. And he'd been in similar situations three times before this year and not gotten it done.

"We went out with the same energy and passion that we did those other times," said Walker, who last season orchestrated a 10-play, 50-yard march that resulted in a game-winning field goal at Massachusetts. "You just have to make plays. You have to make it work."

Or else this Friday night's game in South Philly against South Florida (6-1, 3-0) wouldn't be for a piece of first place in the American Athletic Assocation East Division, where the Owls (4-3, 2-1) are the defending champions.

"At the end of the day, that's what matters," Walker emphasized. "The effort we showed, after being down 25-7 (after 18 minutes) . . . we just battled. Then to have a big moment like that, on the road against a really good team . . . When we realized what we did, it was unbelievable."

It saved their season, at least for another week.

In the opener at home against Army, they trailed by eight points with 3:41 left when they took over on their 30. On the second play, following a sack, Walker was intercepted and two plays after that the Black Knights scored the clinching TD.

Two weeks later at Penn State, they were down seven with 37 seconds to go when they got the ball at their 15. On the second play, Walker threw another pick.

Two weeks ago at Memphis, they were again behind by seven when they started at the 20 with 0:41 showing. A 19-yard Walker run and 15-yard completion sandwiched around an incompletion got them to the Memphis 46. But an interception at 15 seconds ended things.

"You know the mistakes we made in the past," Walker said. "This was another opportunity."

To get it right. With almost everything at stake.

Now, if they can beat a team that beat them by 21 last November in Tampa they'll own all the tiebreakers. And the rest of the schedule at least on paper appears to be relatively user-friendly.

"I've always said that P.J. is a winner," coach Matt Rhule reiterated. "I thought he was just up for . . . whatever needed to be done. He was at his best when the best was required. Four great plays, and we didn't block a soul on the last one. Some of our o-linemen thought we were spiking it. But he was ready and found (Keith) Kirkwood (over the middle near the back of the end zone from eight yards out). That's who P.J. is."

And when things haven't gone so well, both this year and when he struggled some as a soph, he's been criticized. Fair enough. It's what happens.

"When you're the coach and the quarterback, everyone's going to have an opinion," Rhule duly noted. "He's the man in the arena, the man with the ball in his hands all the time. That's why I can defend him on a lot of stuff. He's had three tipped-ball interceptions. He's got three on final drives, when he's just trying to make a play. But none of that really matters. I know who P.J. Walker is. He's a competitor. He's tough. He's won a lot of games at Temple. And he's resilient. When he makes mistakes he owns up to them. He lets his actions speak for themself."

Sometimes, the statement is resounding. And maybe even a little defining.

"There's times when he gets blamed because we don't do our jobs," Bryant said. "People don't see that. But that comes with being a quarterback."

And it's the only position Walker's ever wanted to be in. For better or otherwise.

"You live with it, you know," he acknowledged. "All you can do is go out there and just keep playing, every game, man. I don't pay attention to the noise outside of this gate. I've got thick skin as well. It really doesn't bother me. They've never played the role I'm playing. This is my situation. I know. It is what it is. That's why they don't get it. I'm the one doing it. I can't tell you what they think."

For now, this is all anyone needs to compute: Pass to Bryant for 20 yards, pass to Bryant for 16, pass to Bryant for 26, pass to Kirkwood for 8. Get on the plane and head back home with something big still to play for.

"I think some of the guys didn't get the call (from the sidline)," Walker admitted. "They were run-blocking. But we got the ball out and Kirkwood made a great play. I just had to get it in his hands. I think he was the only one who ran a route. Ventel was woozy from the last play, Brodrick (Yancy) was probably tired from helping Ventel get lined up and Adonis (Jennings) was confused and didn't line up right. But we got Kirkwood one-on-one with a nickel backer, and he beat him off the line of scrimmage.

"We knew the defense was tired. We just had to get a play off."

He made it sound simple, when it was anything but. It's what guys like him are being counted on to do.

Especially when it counts the most.


kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn

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