November 24, 2015

If the opportunity to play for a conference title wasn't enough to keep Temple focused for its regular-season finale, Connecticut's most recent performance surely got the Owls' attention.

The 25th-ranked Owls can secure a spot in the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship game with a win over the improving Huskies on Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field after both teams came through with critical victories over two of the league's top teams.

After having its lead in the East Division jeopardized by a 44-23 loss at South Florida on Nov. 14, Temple (9-2, 6-1) kept itself in the driver's seat with a 31-12 win over Memphis last week. One more would give the Owls the second 10-win season in program history and more importantly, a matchup next week at Friday's winner between 16th-ranked Navy and No. 21 Houston with a New Year's Six bowl bid possibly at stake.

Temple, which finished 10-2 in 1979, may have a pair of historic achievements within its grasp, but coach Matt Rhule insists the Owls' approach won't change.

"If we are preparing differently now then we were before, then we weren't preparing properly before," he said. "Everything isn't on the line for us. Just playing one more week's on the line, a chance to go to the championship game's on the line."

Connecticut (6-5, 4-3) already accomplished one of its goals after delivering one of the conference's more stunning results of the season last week, a 20-17 triumph over previously unbeaten Houston that made the Huskies bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.

UConn, 2-10 in coach Bob Diaco's first season in 2014, earned only its third win in 26 games against ranked teams since joining the FBS in 2000.

''To have this kind of win happen for those seniors and their families, I know that is going to be a catalyst for so much success in the future,'' Diaco said.

Temple last played in a bowl in 2011 and went 8-16 in Rhule's first two seasons.

The two coaches have engineered their program's turnarounds by employing similar philosophies, with both teams' success built around tough, physical defenses and ball-control offenses.

"They're like us," Rhule said. "They like to play defense, they like to play special teams, they like to run the football."

The Owls lead the AAC in total defense and rank second against the run. They've held three teams, most notably Penn State, under 200 total yards, but the unit's most impressive performance may have come last week.

Memphis, averaging 541.0 total yards and 43.7 points coming in, was held to a season-low 232 and four field goals as Temple snapped Paxton Lynch's streak of 15 consecutive games with a touchdown pass.

The effort came one week after the Owls surrendered 326 rushing yards and 556 total to South Florida.

"The challenge (last) week was to our seniors to take the team to another level. By that, I mean winning big games down the stretch, not being distracted, responding to adversity, and we felt like we were prepared for it," Rhule said. "Everything that we have been through has led us to this moment to play really well."

UConn, ranked second in the conference in scoring defense (19.1 ppg) and first against the pass (189.1 ypg), shut down Houston's potent attack in much the same manner. The Cougars managed 318 total yards, more than 200 under their season average, and were held under 33 points for the first time.

The Huskies did lose quarterback Bryant Shirreffs to a head injury in the first quarter, clouding his status for Saturday's contest.

"He was feeling much better on Sunday then he was Saturday night," Diaco said Tuesday. "He was feeling better on Monday than he was Sunday. Same thing for today."

Tim Boyle, who completed 12 of 22 passes for 110 yards in relief, will start if Shirreffs isn't cleared.

UConn has lost three of four to Temple but posted a 28-21 win at Lincoln Financial Field in 2013.

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