To say football success has been infrequent on North Broad Street would be a bit of an understatement.
The Owls last conference championship came under the George Makris regime, back in 1967. Since then, through the eras of coaches like Wayne Hardin, Bruce Arians, Jerry Berndt and Bobby Wallace, Temple's highs rarely broke through onto the national stage.
Matt Rhule inherited a 4-7 squad (following some up and down campaigns from Al Golden and Steve Addazio) and promptly went 2-10 his first year. While he insisted back then the team was on the right track, few truly believed him.
"As we look ahead I think the hard lessons we learned were things we had to learn," Rhule said at that time. "Seeing how easy it is to lose a game, how small the margin of error, will be really good for our program moving forward. As I told these guys right from the beginning I’m going to raise the standards, the `price of admission’ here."
Two years later the price of admission has bought Temple a ticket to the title game. Now, with a chance to possibly earn a New Year’s Eve or even New Year’s Day bowl berth with a win, the Owls need to figure out a way to harness explosive quarterback Greg Ward and the 11-1 Cougars. That won’t be easy, considering Houston is averaging a second-best-in-the-nation 42 points per game under first year coach Tom Herman, with Ward rushing for 17 touchdowns and passing for 16 more (while Demarcus Ayers has a staggering 89 receptions for 1,140 yards and six scores).
"They have really, really good players and coach Herman’s a really good coach," said Rhule, who played golf with Herman during the off-season. "They have real talent and Tom’s done a great job developing them. Ward’s a complete quarterback. He can throw it, run it, zone read and he can scramble. When you play a quarterback like that sometimes they have a tendency to make everyone passive and afraid to make a mistake.
“So we’re gonna have to be aggressive, but Greg Ward’s a winner."
The Cougars’ defense, meanwhile, has forced 28 turnovers, fifth best in the nation. They’re also 13th in the nation in rushing defense, allowing 117.5 yards, just a shade below No. 12 Temple’s 117.4.
But these Owls have simply come too far to worry about statistics. The only number on their minds is 11. With a victory they’d become the first 11-win team in school history.
Yet in keeping with their season-long “what’s next?” mentality that focuses on the immediate rather than the big picture, they’re trying their best not to look beyond the opening kickoff.
"You've got to live in the moment," said linebacker Tyler Matakevich, named AAC Defensive Player of the Year following a season in which he’s racked up 118 tackles, with four sacks and five interceptions. “But you can't let it get the best of you. It's just another game, except this time after the game you get a trophy."
Rhule, though, who spent six seasons as an assistant for both Golden and Addazio, has a truer appreciation of what’s at stake.
"This is a unique, wonderful week in Temple football history," said Rhule, who many forget served as Tom Coughlin’s assistant offensive line coach with the 2012 Giants, before he replaced Addazio. "I’m really excited for all the former players who’ve reached out to me. I’m happy for the campus and for the people in Philadelphia. I’m hoping we can bring back a trophy for them."
After all those lonely years George Makris could sure use the company.