For the vast majority this may just be the start of something great.
They hope, even expect this to be the rule rather than the exception from here on. But for 21 Temple seniors — all of whom have already received their diplomas — this is their last rodeo.
When the 10-3 Owls go for a school record 11th win Tuesday night vs. 9-2 Mid American Conference power Toledo in the ever popular Marmot Boca Raton Bowl, it will be the end of line not only for all-American linebacker Tyler Matakevich but an array of Matt Rhule’s crew.
While a season that started off so promising with seven straight wins has taken a bit of a hit with three losses in their last six games —including dropping the American Athletic Conference title game to Houston, 24-13 — it would be special to finish it off with a ‘W.’
"This is definitely a big moment that I’m going to take with me for the rest of my life," said senior defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis, who’ll join Matakevich and defensive back Tavon Young at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, AL. "I’m glad that my last [Temple] game is a bowl game. It’s been a long ride with these guys. To see the moment pay off, to go from 2-10 to 6-6, to this, it definitely means a little more to us.”
Especially if the No. 24 ranked Owls can contain a Rockets’ team that like them had a chance to win its League and potentially earn a berth in one of those prestigious (and big payday) New Year’s Six bowls. But the Rockets, who won early in the season at Arkansas, fizzled in their finale, 35-30, to Western Michigan. They’ve been waiting a while for a chance for redemption.
On offense, backs Kareem Hunt (894 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns) and Terry Swanson (870 and seven scores) lead the way, while quarterback Philip Ely has thrown for 2,680 yards and 21 touchdowns for a team averaging 34.7 points a game. Defensively, Orion Jones (6.0 sacks) Chase Murdock (78 tackles) and Cheatham Norris (60 tackles, 3 interceptions) head a unit that’s allowed just 21.1 points a game.
"They have a bunch of really good players and do a great job on defensive disruption, blitzing and moving," said Rhule, who’ll rely on a pair of juniors—quarterback P.J. Walker (2,737 yards passing and 19 touchdowns) and Jahad Thomas (1,257 yards rushing and 17 TDs) to key his attack. "We have to handle that. Offensively they can do anything from no backs, to a drop back passing game, to the physical downhill tough run game. They score a ton of points; so we’re going to have to play great defense.”
That’s largely where all those seniors come in: Matakevich, Ioannidis, Young, Nate D. Smith and Will Hayes at the forefront.
"I think myself and this senior class have definitely made an impact on Temple University and especially Temple football,” said Matakevich, winner of both the Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s best defensive player, who’s compiled 126 tackles this season, 481 for his career. "We’re definitely part of the turning point in Temple football. That’s something I’ll take a lot of pride in."
Yet even with all the emotion bound to bubble to the surface realizing this is it, the Owls will try their best not to get caught up in the bigger picture.
"Our focus has been ‘What’s next?’ all year,: said Matakevich, who said he’s thrilled Rhule’s not going anywhere, having recently signed a six-year extension. “We’re just trying to get ready for Toledo right now.
“But I know I’m only gonna get to wear this cherry-and-white uniform one more time.”
And Rhule will only get to coach this special group of players, who helped contribute significantly to Temple being ranked No. 7 nationally in terms of academics, one more time, too.
"It will be an emotional moment for me because I really, really love the group of seniors that’s leaving,” said Rhule, who’s confident their success opens the doors to recruits who see Temple as a viable option. “I know how I’ll remember them personally. I hope other people remember them as a tough, blue-collar group of kids that came here and handled adversity and then had a special year. They should be remembered that way.
“I just hope we go out with a win.”
And in the process end this special year by doing something no other Temple team has ever done:
Win 11 games.