High up in the football book of clichés, next to "On any given __ day any team can beat any other team,” is this:
"It doesn’t matter who the opponent. We just need to worry about ourselves."
That’s the one Matt Rhule has been preaching since Temple finished 6-6 in 2014, without a bowl invitation. His message is that no matter what happens in their highly anticipated Sept. 5 opener against Penn State at the Linc, it’s just the first game. The ones that follow are no more or less important.
"I’m trying to get them to understand it’s not about who we play," Rhule said this past weekend. "It’s about us. Two years ago we played decent -- but not good -- at Notre Dame, then came back the next week and Houston ran all over us. Last year went out and beat Vanderbilt and played well, then gave up 512 yards on offense to Navy.
"So it’s not everyone else. It’s about us being the same team every week, which we clearly have not been."
Gradually, the message seems to be sinking in.
"It’s been a problem Temple has faced over the years," said senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich, a fourth team pre-season All American who’s amassed 244 solo tackles his first three seasons. "Coach has addressed it to us and guys are finally starting to realize it. The biggest thing is you don’t worry about your opponent. Focus on yourselves. Focus on the team. I think after that first game everyone takes a deep breath. But you can never let up in football. Definitely we’re not gonna let that happen this year,”
Easier said than done, of course. But if the Owls can maintain some consistency they have a great chance of their first winning season since 2011 under Steve Addazio. Picked third in the American Athletic Conference, with 19 starters returning, 10 from a defense than allowed a fourth best in the nation 17.5 points a game, Temple seems poised for a breakout year.”
“We can do a lot better than last year,” said Nate D. Smith, who’s been moved from linebacker to the defensive line, despite his 236 pound frame. “A lot of games we beat ourselves, but this is a new year.
“We’ve got a lot of starters, a lot of seniors returning We want to go out with a bang.”
Three of Temple’s losses last year were by eight points or less, including 13-10 to eventual AAC champ Memphis on a field goal at the gun. Speaking of three points, the Owls’ kicking game has been an issue since Rhule arrived. Temple hit on 15 of 24 attempts last year, which isn’t great, but a whole letter better than the sorry 3-for-9 it went in 2013.
At least now Rhule usually shouldn’t have to be forced to go for it on fourth downs and go for two on conversions the way he once did. Still, more consistency would be nice.
“Last year we made a lot of kicks first half,” said Rhule, who’ll be counting on sophomore Austin Jones. “but the last five games we went 2 for 5. It’s significantly better than last year, but not near good enough . We need to be automatic inside the 25.”
Then again, if the offense, led by junior P.J.Walker can find the end zone more frequently, it wouldn’t hurt. Walker needs to improve upon his 53 percent completion rate, including more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (13). The Owls running game led by Jahad Thomas (384 yards on 80 carries) should be boosted by the return of Zaire Williams, who gained 533 yards as a freshman but was hurt much of last year.
The bottom line is the pieces are there for Temple to finally start performing at the level Rhule and others expect. But with their rugged schedule -- a trip to pre-season AAC champ Cincinnati following Penn State, other road games at East Carolina and SMU and that highly anticipated game with Notre Dame on Halloween at the Linc -- the Owls figure to be tested early and often.
Then again, if they just worry about themselves, things should work out fine. After all, that’s what it says right near the top in the book of clichés.