And in that corner… The Temple Owls

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A lot has changed since Temple visited South Bend to kick off the 2013 season. Head coach Matt Rhule had just taking over for Steve Addazio, who had jumped to Boston College after a few nice seasons in Philadelphia.

Rhule had returned to the Owls from the NFL, back to the place where he had coordinated Al Golden’s offense during Golden’s impressive build job that got him a chance in Miami.

Rhule’s work has been brick-by-brick. A two-win season first year built to last season’s 6-6 campaign. But 2015 has been a dream start, capitalizing on a veteran defense and a team that’s shown a champion’s mentality—with the Owls holding the inside track for an American Conference title, something most didn’t think possible just a few years ago.

With the college football world focused on the Owls’ evening in the spotlight on Saturday, Temple will be ready for its star turn. And getting us ready for what might be the biggest game in Temple program history is the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Marc Narducci.

Marc has been with the Inquirer for over 30 years, covering just about every sport the area has to offer. During one of the busiest weeks covering Temple football in a long, long time, he still found time to share his thoughts about the state of the Owls and this weekend’s big game.

Hope you enjoy.

Temple’s season-opening win over Penn State started 2015 with a bang. Since then, Matt Rhule’s team has done nothing but win. Before we getting into this weekend’s matchup, can you provide Notre Dame fans with some context for this 7-0 start? In your opinion, is this the high-water mark for Temple football?

It is only the high water mark because the program has never been 7-0 to start a season. So in that aspect it is, but the team feels there is so much more to accomplish. Many felt that the Penn State win, the first over the Nittany Lions in 74 years, would be the high water mark, but then the next week Temple had no letdown and beat the preseason American Athletic Conference favorite Cincinnati on the road.

I really believe in Temple’s mind, the actual high water mark hasn’t been accomplished. The goal has always been to win the AAC title and Temple is clearly in the driver’s seat to at least represent its division in the title game.

 

The Owls are getting it done with defense. They’re 8th in the country in scoring defense and No. 6 against the run. What’s been the secret to their success?

I think the biggest factor is experience. This is a unit that allowed 17.5 points per game last year and has improved, while playing a more difficult schedule. Temple is allowing 14.6 points per game and the team has great senior leadership. Linebacker Tyler Matakevich is the only FBS player to lead his team in tackles in every game this season. He has 420 tackles for his career and could become the seventh player in NCAA history to record 100 or more tackles each season (He has 65 this year).

DT Matt Ioannidis doesn’t have big stats, but he has been a load to move up front. And the best pure pass rusher is Praise Martin-Oguike, who at 6-2, and 255 is a little undersized, but quick. He has been hampered by injuries, but has shown great flashes. And he made the biggest defensive play of the year – blocking an extra point against UMass that was returned for a two-point defensive score by Will Hayes in a 25-23 last-minute win. The Owls also have a strong secondary, led by the corners, sophomore Sean Chandler and senior Tavon Young. Chandler has been the best one-on-one defender this year.

 

This still feels very much like an offense that’s a work in progress. P.J. Walker played big down the stretch in the comeback victory over East Carolina, but nationally the Owls are 93rd in the country running the football and 92nd throwing it. What’s the secret for Temple’s offensive success on Saturday night? And is Walker the most important piece of the puzzle?

You are right that the offense is a work in progress. The Owls have had trouble getting started in games. Walker separated his shoulder in the opening win over Penn State, but he is a tough kid and didn’t miss any time. He says now he is feeling much better. Walker hasn’t been much of a running threat, which would really open things up. He has been inconsistent, but has shown great composure when it was needed during fourth quarter comebacks against UMass and East Carolina. Plus, he is taking care of the ball. Last year he threw 13 TDs and 15 interceptions. This year he has nine TD passes and three interceptions.

An underrated aspect of the offense’s success is the improved play of the offensive line, led by Rimington candidate, senior Kyle Friend, who at 6-2, 305 is considered undersized, but he is one of the strongest players, if not the strongest on the team. The OL has only allowed seven sacks and junior running back Jahad Thomas leads the AAC in rushing with 117.4 yards per game. He has rushed for 822 yards (5.0 avg.) and 12 TDs.

 

It’s hard to get caught up on the Owls and not notice the season Tyler Matakevich is having. He’s been a tackling machine and has a team-high four interceptions. But the core of the Temple defense is playing equally impressive defense—Matt Ioannidis and Haason Reddick have been great up front and Nate D. Smith has been incredibly disruptive as well, especially in limited snaps. Is that a testament to veteran defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s system? Rhule’s player development? Good recruiting?

It is all of the above. As for recruiting, none of these players was highly recruited, but Temple has a penchant for developing these type of players. For instance, Temple was Matakevich’s only Division I offer. Temple never worries about what the 5-star or 4-star lists say. More than many staffs, the coaches look inside a player and see what he is all about.

If you look, many of these guys are below the height/weight standards people are looking for. Matakevich is 6-1, 232. Nate D. Smith is a converted linebacker who is 6-0, 236. Yet all these players have toughness that is off the chart, something that Rhule looks for in recruiting.

 

Staying on the topic of Rhule, he’s likely to get a long look from a number of major programs that’ll be hiring a new head coach. In your mind, what are the odds that he’s coaching the Owls at this time next season? What has made him so successful at Temple in such a short period of time.

I would place the odds of 50-50 that Rhule stays. He really like Philadelphia, likes Temple and counting his years as an assistant has been there nine years. I think it appeals to him working in a pro city, where his every move isn’t scrutinized. Temple realized what an outstanding coach he could be when they extended his contract before this year, despite having a 8-16 record his first two years. Unlike his predecessor, Steve Addazio, Rhule never looked at this job as a place to climb the ladder. Remember, he left the pros as an assistant to come back here. That all said, if a big program offers him four times the salary, it would be hard to turn down. So we will see.

 

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be following Temple football. A sold out Lincoln Financial Stadium. A national TV broadcast with the weekend’s only game featuring ranked opponents. (ESPN’s College GameDay, too.)

With a long dormant stadium project potentially back to life, what has this season meant for the football program and the university? And is it possible to quantify what a win over Notre Dame on Saturday would mean?

This season has meant everything to football. The fact that Temple is making a strong push now for a football stadium, is a way of capitalizing on all the success. The win over Penn State meant a lot in terms of recruiting and national publicity. Just multiply that by 10 if the Owls are able to beat Notre Dame.

It would help in recruiting, fund raising and more importantly, would give the Owls a chance to earn a New Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve bowl bid. Even if Temple loses but accredits itself well, being on GameDay and ABC is invaluable publicity.