Temple aims to make the most of prime-time showcase
On Monday afternoon, a few minutes shy of 12:30 p.m., Matt Rhule stepped onto the soap box.
The third-year Temple head coach, who recovered a shattered program in 2013 and proceeded to drag it doggedly towards respectability, was finally ready to talk about the ominous storm cloud hovering in the distance:
A challenge, doubling as an enormous opportunity.
A prime-time matchup with Notre Dame.
“It gives us a chance to show recruits all across the country what exactly is happening here,” Rhule said on the American Athletic Conference’s weekly teleconference. “Obviously we would love to play well. That’ll impact that even further. But I think when they see the atmosphere, the crowd, the support that we’re getting, the power that’s there in terms of the fans and the students and everything that’s happening, it really authenticates what we’re trying to tell recruits – that this is a big-time place, that this is an awesome opportunity and they can do great things while they’re here.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for Temple football. I think it’s a great opportunity for Temple University to put the Temple T on national TV for four hours, to let people all across the country that might not know what Temple is or all the great things that are happening here, to maybe get on our website and see what a great university and mission we have here.”
A few minutes later, ESPN announced that College GameDay would also be setting down in Philadelphia, visiting No. 21 Temple with Independence Hall as its backdrop.
How’s that for a national stage?
The 7-0 Owls have certainly earned the extra attention. A year after finishing 6-6, Rhule’s team has bludgeoned its admittedly middling competition, the highlight being a head-turning, 27-10 drubbing of local bully Penn State on Sept. 5. They rank sixth nationally in rushing defense (91.9 yards per game), eighth in scoring defense (14.6 points per game) and 14th in total defense (307.7 yards per game).
The Owls have reason to be confident. And yet, as Rhule stated, a brighter spotlight is only beneficial if it’s met by a dazzling performance.
Their opponent on Saturday knows that all too well.
“It's a lot easier for our guys to feel the excitement at Clemson than if it's a half-full stadium and it's not a raucous crowd,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “So we feed off that. Our guys enjoy that. They are used to it.
“Every week they play in front of 80-something thousand. We hope it's an exciting atmosphere. We know as football players, as student-athletes, as college athletes, they love that environment.”
To this point, Temple has strong-armed the likes of UMass, Charlotte, Central Florida and East Carolina. Even their more high-profile victims, Penn State and Cincinnati, pale in comparison to the challenge ahead. The combined records of Temple’s seven opponents is a pitiable 13-31.
No. 9 Notre Dame, on the other hand, is 6-1 — and rested.
“I think we’re a good team. We’re fighting and scratching and clawing to be a great team,” Rhule said. “I think we’re a really tough team, a resilient team. Like any team, we’re not perfect. But our kids play together and believe in each other and stick together.
“All that will be tested this week because Notre Dame is obviously extremely talented and extremely well-coached.”
On Saturday, Temple’s viability as an elite program will be tested by DeShone Kizer, by C.J. Prosise, by Jaylon Smith, by Sheldon Day, by the eyes of a sold-out Lincoln Financial Field, by the weight of Lee Corso’s headgear and a searing and newfound national spotlight.
Long after he steps off the soap box, Rhule’s program will have to speak for itself.
“The only thing we can control is how we play,” Rhule said. “I want to make sure we’re focused. But our kids have done it all year. They’ve practiced and played really hard. I think we’re ready to handle the increased attention.”
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