TAMPA, Florida — No. 21 Temple suddenly has a much tougher road to the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship game.
The Owls wasted an opportunity to clinch the AAC East Division title, playing poorly on offense and defense in a 44-23 loss to surging South Florida on Saturday night.
"It was just one of those nights where nothing really went well," Temple coach Matt Rhule said.
The defense, ranked No. 1 in the conference, yielded 31 points in the first half and allowed 556 yards total offense. USF's Marlon Mack rushed for 230 yards and scored three touchdowns.
"They physically kind of ran over us," Rhule said. "It was certainly not our best day."
Mack had TD runs of 57 and 48 yards and caught a 20-yard scoring pass from Quinton Flowers for USF (6-4, 4-2), which scored on five straight possessions while building a 21-point halftime lead.
Flowers threw for 230 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed 90 yards and one TD as the Bulls became bowl-eligible for the first time under third-year coach Willie Taggart.
Temple (8-2, 5-1, No. 22 CFP) trimmed its deficit to 11 points in the third quarter, but couldn't get any closer. The Owls still lead the East by one game over USF with home dates remaining against No. 25 Memphis and Connecticut.
"We have a lot to fix," Rhule said after the team's second loss in the past three games. The Owls' bid for a perfect season was dashed by Notre Dame two weeks ago.
"They know where they stand. They've earned the right to control their own destiny," Rhule added. "They won eight games. That's a credit, but we have to get back to playing better football."
Jahad Thomas went over 1,000 yards rushing and scored his 16th TD (15 rushing, one receiving) of the season for Temple. P.J. Walker threw for 259 yards, including a 14-yard TD pass to Ventell Bryant.
Thomas entered the game as the American's leading rusher but was limited to 65 yards on 16 carries, 42 yards under his season average. Walker was 20 of 48 passing with one interception.
Meanwhile, Mack posted his sixth 100-yard game of the season and went over 1,000 yards for the second time. He led the conference in rushing a year ago as a freshman and boosted his 2015 total to 1,065 yards.
Temple has been ranked in the Top 25 the past four weeks, the longest stretch in school history. The challenge now is to finish strong after stumbling Saturday night.
"We feel like it's in our hands, and we feel good about it. We've just got to go out there and play our best ball for the next two games," Walker said.
"All we've got to do is our job. We've said that since (training) camp," linebacker Tyler Matekevich. "I'm very disappointed in myself, and we've got to get this thing corrected."
This story has been corrected to fix spelling of Jahad Thomas' first name in 11th paragraph.