The Temple Owls (10-3) did their part to make the job a little bit easier for the College Football Playoff’s selection committee in the next 24 hours. A 34-10 victory in the American Athletic Conference championship game in Annapolis against No. 19 Navy (9-3) will more than likely mean MAC champion Western Michigan will be heading to the Cotton Bowl as the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion. For the Owls, it is the first conference championship in program history since 1967, and just the second conference crown for the Owls.
Temple took care of business in the first half by scoring touchdowns on each of their first three offensive possessions to go up 21-0, stunning the home Navy crowd in the process while key Midshipmen went down with injuries. Starting quarterback Will Worth was among those lost for the day in the first half, while Temple’s Phillip Walker was tossing two touchdown completions with great confidence; one 22-yard pass to Ventell Bryant and a 56-yard deep ball to Keith Kirkwood. Jahad Thomas ran in the first touchdown of the day for the Owls on the opening drive of the game.
For the first time in program history, Temple has won 10 games in a season in back-to-back years. This also marks Temple’s conference championship game victory, a year after playing in the first AAC Championship Game last season as East Division champion on the road against Houston. Perhaps the experience of last season came into play, as did the experience of playing Army in the season opener (which Temple lost). If he has not already, expect Temple head coach Matt Rhule to start hearing his name in a few more rumors and his phone to be a bit more busy as the coaching carousel continues to spin.
Temple is not expected to essentially come out of nowhere to pass an undefeated Western Michigan with three losses on their record, so the Owls will be first in line among the AAC programs to slot into bowl games with conference affiliations this season. A slot in the Miami Beach Bowl would be a nice reward, but a chance to play an ACC opponent in the Military Bowl may also be an option. That would mean returning to Annapolis for a second straight game in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Navy already had a spot in the bowl lineup reserved due to an association with the Armed Forces Bowl. The bowl invitation has already been represented but the Naval Academy was wise to hold off on accepting it until known whether or not a bigger bowl game could be on the horizon. That will not happen this year, as Navy is eliminated from the Group of Five New Years six conversation with the loss to Temple. So Navy will be heading to the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas on December 23. Their opponent is contracted to come from the Big 12, but that spot could be open if the Big 12 cannot fill all of its bowl spots. North Texas could benefit from such a situation, and having a team from Texas would be an ideal alternative for the bowl game. Navy still has one more game to play though, as they play rival Army in the annual Army-Navy Game next weekend in Baltimore. Considering some of the injuries that came into play Saturday, Navy’s health should be a concern with a rested Army coming up next week.
Navy will play the remainder of the American Athletic Conference championship game without starting quarterback Will Worth, Toneo Gulley or Daryll Bonner. All three left the game with injuries in the first half of the American Athletic Conference championship game in Annapolis. As if that were not enough, the Temple Owls were already up 21-0 at the time and looking to slam the door shut on Navy in its first conference championship game appearance in program history, and on Navy’s hopes of reaching the New Years Six by slipping past MAC champion Western Michigan. Temple leads Navy at the halftime break, 24-3.
Temple, playing in its second straight AAC game after losing at Houston last season, marched right down the field on the Midshipmen on the game’s opening drive. Jahad Thomas capped off the well-executed 12-play drive with a 15-yard touchdown run. The Owls pushed their lead to 14-0 on their next possession after the defense came up with a fourth-down stop at the Temple 41-yard line. Phillip Walker completed a 22-yard touchdown pass to Ventell Bryant. Navy would then uncharacteristically fumble the football away on the fourth play of the ensuing drive, leading to a third Temple touchdown, a 56-yard touchdown pass from Walker to Keith Kirkwood.
Temple’s Avery Williams was ejected in the second quarter for a targeting foul on backup Navy quarterback Zach Abbey. The helmet-to-helmet hit left Williams thriving in pain after the play before walking off the field as the review was underway. Abbey was playing in place of a banged-up Worth, who hobbled off the field moments earlier. Abbey would toss his first completion of his college career later on the drive, which ended with a field goal to get Navy on the scoreboard.
A late interception thrown by Abbey allowed Temple a chance to tack on a late field goal by Aaron Boumerhi from 48 yards out. Just moments earlier, Boumerhi missed from 50 yards.
If Temple goes on to win the AAC championship, it would seem very likely Western Michigan will head to the Cotton Bowl as the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion. Even with a win, there may not be enough Temple can do with three losses this season to wiggle past the Broncos.
Navy (6-2) clinched bowl eligibility at the same time Notre Dame (3-6) was put on the brink of bowl elimination in Jacksonville. A Will Worth pass completion on fourth and six to Jamir Tillman allowed the Midshipmen to run out the clock on the final possession of the game. Navy held the football for the final seven minutes and 28 seconds to hang on to a 28-27 victory.
With just over seven and a half minutes to play, Brian Kelly was faced with a decision on fourth and four. Kick a field goal and cut Navy’s lead down to one and hope the defense can get the ball back, or go for a first down and keep a drive alive. Kelly opted for a 31-yard field goal. Notre Dame’s offense never stepped back on the field until the postgame handshakes and alma mater performances. It was a critical coaching decision that appeared to backfire in a big way, although whatever happened on the drive it was pretty clear Notre Dame’s defense would need to make a stop either way. It did not, allowing two fourth-down conversions and committing a costly pass interference penalty on a third down on Navy’s final possession.
Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer passed for 223 yards and three touchdowns, but it was all for nothing as the Irish defense was unable to make a stop. Navy scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions, not counting the final possession that ran out the clock in the second half.
Kelly has now lost to Navy twice (a dubious feat also accomplished by his predecessor, Charlie Weis), while Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has picked up his third win against the Irish since becoming Navy’s head coach. Navy can now refocus its sights on competing for the American Athletic Conference title, while Notre Dame simply looks to find any reason for optimism.
Navy returns to American Athletic Conference play next week back home in Annapolis against Tulsa. the game will have high stake sin the division on the line. A Navy win will keep the Midshipmen atop the division with two conference games to play. Navy would have a minimum one-game lead in the division with a win against the Golden Hurricane, but Tulsa could take over first place in the division with a win and a head-to-head tiebreaker with Navy. Tulsa plays at home against East Carolina later tonight.
Notre Dame has one more service academy to play next week. Notre Dame will face Army in San Antonio next Saturday. The Irish are now on the brink of being ineligible for postseason play, unless 5-7 teams start getting invites to fill vacancies. Even then, Notre Dame may have a difficult road to travel to a bowl game. Notre Dame must win their final three games of the season just to hit the typical win minimum for bowl eligibility (six wins), or two of the final three to jump in the 5-7 mix. With games still to play against Virginia Tech and USC, Notre Dame could very well be staying home this bowl season.