- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A bowl game is supposed to serve as a reward for a solid season. Sometimes, teams seem to view it as anything but a treat.

Tuesday’s EagleBank Bowl at RFK Stadium, however, isn’t a likely candidate to feature a team suffering from ennui. Temple is enjoying its best season in three decades. UCLA is back in the postseason after a one-year hiatus.

And neither program wants to leave the District empty-handed.

“Some of the bowl games, it seems like there’s been some disinterest,” UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. “That will not be the case here.”

Even though the Bruins (6-6) are three time zones from home, they seem unlikely to fall into the bowl doldrums. UCLA needed a three-game winning streak in November just to become eligible for the postseason.

The late run ensured the Bruins didn’t miss a bowl in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1989-90, when they struggled to replace quarterback Troy Aikman. Despite a loss to crosstown rival Southern California to close out the season, UCLA still sees plenty at stake.

The Bruins can secure their first winning season since 2006 and a bowl victory for the first time in four years. More significantly, a win would provide an upbeat end to Neuheisel’s second season with a program mired in the middle of the Pac-10 for much of the last decade.

“It’s definitely a big building block for us,” cornerback Alterraun Verner said. “Not being in the postseason last year to getting back to it this year and getting exposed to it, especially some of our younger guys so they can see how it feels to play teams like Temple and get this type of exposure and be surrounded by such good sights, getting this exposure, they’re going to want more and yearn for more.”

They aren’t the only ones, though.

UCLA at least has some players with postseason experience. Tuesday will mark something strikingly different for Temple, which is in only its third bowl ever and its first since 1979.

The Owls (9-3) rattled off a nine-game winning streak after a rough start, using a brawny offensive line, freshman dynamo Bernard Pierce at tailback and a stingy defensive front to shake the also-ran label long affixed to Temple’s football team.

It was an evolution that took time. Temple coach Al Golden inherited a winless team when he took over before the 2006 season, and the Owls made progress each season. After a 5-7 year filled with close losses last fall, Temple made the leap to Mid-American Conference contender.

While the breakout year didn’t lead to a league title, there’s plenty at stake for the Owls, including a season with double-digit victories.

“In college football, 10 is an uncommon number,” Golden said. “There’s probably only 20 that have a chance to do that out of 120. It would be the second time in the history of our program, 110 years, and obviously the first time in 30 years. Winning a bowl game, winning 10, we still have a lot to play for.”

That’s especially true of Temple’s outgoing players, who endured miserable seasons early in their careers while playing for what was once one of major college football’s most irrelevant programs.

While all seniors want to end their careers with a victory, a win Tuesday only would reinforce how much things have changed for the Owls.

“When I first got here, it was just loss after loss,” senior defensive tackle Andre Neblett said. “It was long rides home on the plane, sad faces after the games. Just after games to be able to smile and laugh and to enjoy each other, it’s been great. I think the rest of our teammates will want to keep that going and want the locker room to be like that for years to come.”

Similar sentiments hold at UCLA, which hopes it is also on the way up. Even though neither team enters the EagleBank Bowl ranked, both programs believe they’re not far away from earning that status regularly.

“I think both teams have a lot to play for,” Neuheisel said. “I don’t think you’re looking at this game as saying, ‘One’s a have and one’s a have not.’ That’s not the case. I think it’s a situation of great pride in both programs, both pointing in the right direction.”

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