Run to win: How Temple got its ground groove back

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Jahad Thomas is the Owls' leading rusher this season.

The biggest difference in Temple from the first six games to the last six can be found on the ground.

After starting 3-3, the Owls made an even bigger commitment to their running game and it has helped on several fronts, starting with time of possession.

The reemergence of the rushing attack is a major reason Temple (9-3) will visit Navy (9-2) for the American Athletic Conference championship game at noon Saturday. It's the Owls' second straight appearance in the title game. They lost to Houston, 24-13, last year.

The decision to rededicate to the ground game came after the Owls had lost, 34-27, at Memphis to fall to 3-3. The pass-run ratio that game was alarming to the coaching staff.

In a game Temple once led, 13-0, quarterback Phillip Walker completed 36 of 59 passes for 445 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. The Owls had 29 rushing attempts for just 86 yards.

So coach Matt Rhule met with his staff, and the Owls decided they were going back to Temple football, which meant a huge emphasis on the ground game.

"When you play great defense, run the football, and convert third downs and win time of possession, it is not real attractive, people won't say, 'Wow, look at their offense, they are amazing.' You just win a lot of games," Rhule said.

Temple is fifth in the nation in time of possession (averaging 34 minutes). Yet during the six-game winniing streak, the Owls have averaged 37 minutes, 14 seconds.

"Our best defense is our running game," Temple defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. "If we can keep their offense off the field, we will play them better."

By running more and being effective in doing it, the Owls have seen their passing game blossom too. Walker threw 10 touchdown passes and just three interceptions in the last six games.

The player who might have the most important role for Temple is running back Jahad Thomas. He is the Owls' leading rusher with 856 yards (4.7 average) and 12 touchdowns. He also has 30 receptions for 402 yards and six scores. Hitting Thomas on swing passes is as effective, if not more, than handing him the ball.

Temple has been successful running the ball because of its depth. Sophomore Ryquell Armstead has rushed for 842 yards (6.1 avg.) and 13 touchdowns. Yet he has an assortment of injuries and is questionable for Saturday, Rhule said. So a lot of the load could fall on Thomas.

This season Thomas has three 100-yard rushing games and all came during the current winning streak. In the last six games he rushed for 619 yards and five touchdowns on 123 carries. Thomas also had 15 receptions for 184 yards and four touchdowns in that span.

"I think running the ball more has taken the pressure off [Walker] and the offensive line," Thomas said. "You can also see in the fourth quarter, if we are running well, the other team getting tired and we feed off that."

If Thomas needs to do extra duty against Navy, he will be more than ready.

"With Ryquell doing so well, it's been good and I am fairly healthy," Thomas said. "I feel a lot better than I did at this time last year."

mnarducci@phillynews.com

@sjnard

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