If you go back, back back to the 1940’s you’ll find Penn was a national powerhouse and regularly played other big time schools. And there were some memorable Army-Navy clashes through the years as well.
But nothing like this.
Nothing generating the kind of buzz, the kind of national fascination, the kind of alumni chest swelling that's going here this week — especially on North Broad Street.
That’s what Temple-Notre Dame Halloween night at the Linc has become: the biggest game in Philadelphia college football history.
Off to the school’s best ever start, Matt Rhule’s No. 21 ranked Owls are 7-0. They’ll take on the 6-1 No. 9 ranked Fighting Irish, coming off a bye and averaging 38 points a game.
But a team that was 2-10 just two years ago and 6-6 last season can’t wait.
“You can definitely feel the excitement around campus,” said linebacker Tyler Matakevich, mindful ESPN will be sending its College Game Day crew to Independence Mall Saturday morning, leading up to the Owls’ first ever prime time exposure on ABC. “You can’t let that get in the way of what you got to do. We got a job to do and we’re going to come out here and take care of business.”
If they don’t Rhule says it won’t be because the occasion became too big for them.
“We embrace the moment,’’ said Rhule, who made his 2013 coaching debut vs. the Irish in South Bend, IN in a 28-6 loss. “We don’t pretend it’s not here. We don’t pretend Game Day’s not coming. We don’t pretend that we’re not playing Notre Dame. All those things are great, but they don’t help us play better. I’m not concerned at all that we won’t be ready to play the game or that moment will be too big. Are we good enough to hang with Notre Dame? That’s the concern.
“If it’s good enough or not, we’ll see, but I’m confident that our kids will be ready to play,”
The Owls are more than a 10-point underdog, which may say more about Brian Kelly’s team than anything. Irish victims this season include Texas, Georgia Tech and USC, along with UMass, whom they crushed 62-27, while Temple needed last minute heroics to pull out a 25-23 win against those same Minutemen. Their loss came at the hands of No. 12 Clemson.
So don’t expect Notre Dame, which has overcome the loss of quarterback Malik Zaire to thrive behind DeShone Kizer, to be distracted by all the pomp and circumstance. They’re used to it. The Owls, on the other hand, are not, though they insist it won’t be a factor.
“They're one of the best defenses in the nation,” said Temple quarterback P.J. Walker, who’s thrown for 1,314 yards and nine touchdowns, while Jahad Thomas has kept teams honest by racking up 822 yards and 12 scores. “They have big guys with a lot of speed and everything. But, I feel like if we go out and play our best football, we'll be alright. We're trying to go out there and show everybody what we can do.”
All season — from the time Temple stunned Penn State 27-10 in its opener to set the tone for what’s followed — the Owls’ mantra has been “What’s next?” They’re always choosing to look ahead rather than dwell on what’s already happened.
Win or lose that won’t change after tomorrow night.
“We just have to stay together, stick to our plan to win, stick to the process and everything will be alright,” said Matakevich, who’s amassed 420 career tackles, more than any active NCAA player. “We know they’re good. But like Coach Rhule says, ‘We don’t worry about our opponent. We worry about us.’”
It’s worked so far, which has created a scenario long-suffering Temple followers could’ve never imagined. Tomorrow night they’ll be the focal point of the college football world.
For years and years the butt of jokes, no one’s laughing at Temple football now.