If Notre Dame is a true contender for the College Football Playoff, the improvements made by Temple under Matt Rhule shouldn’t change the winner on Oct. 31 when the Irish visit Philadelphia.
But it might alter the box score.
Since Rhule debuted as a head coach in Notre Dame Stadium two years ago, Temple has trended up. The Owls went 2-10 during Rhule’s first season, but they lost five games by a combined 16 points. Temple improved to 6-6 last fall. The Owls didn’t get blown off the field at Penn State and lost 14-6 at home to Cincinnati.
That rise should continue.
“It’s a positive outlook here,” said Bill Evans of Owls Daily on Scout.com. “The perception of the program and Rhule has really grown. He was a safe pick when he was hired, but he’s recruited well and has hired good coaches. I think that’s where Rhule has been able to seal the deal.”
Now Temple has conference title aspirations. And if that happens it could be a good thing for Notre Dame.
Let me convince you to take Temple’s defense seriously.
The Owls return all 11 starters from last year’s group, a positive for any program regardless of last season. But Temple also ranked near the best in the nation in the exact category that’s dogged Brian Kelly.
When it came to stopping opponents from scoring touchdowns in the red zone, only Alabama was better. Only the Tide and Owls held teams to less than a 40 percent touchdown rate on red zone trips. The Irish ranked 116th in that category, allowing touchdowns on 70 percent of red zone visits.
Senior middle linebacker Tyler Matakevich makes the Temple defense run, with defensive back Tavon Young and defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis the best of their position groups. The lumberjack of a linebacker holds it all together, entering this season off three-straight 100-plus tackle years.
“He’s continued to grow as a leader,” Evans said. “He’s the big guy on defense and the linebackers should be really good. Matakevich leads the group.”
The issue for Temple last season was a lack of quarterback pressure. The Owls registered 27 sacks – middle of the pack nationally – which the coaching staff said affected the pass defense. Still, Temple forced 30 turnovers for the season. That ranked 11th nationally.
With everyone back and a blueprint for the red zone, this should be the best defense nobody’s watching.
P.J. Walker didn’t get onto the field the last time Notre Dame faced Temple. Back in the season-opener two years ago, the dual threat quarterback was rooted to the bench behind Connor Reilly, who showed some promise as the Owls’ quarterback of the present. But six straight losses to open that season – including as a 21-point favorite to Fordham – forced a change.
Walker made it look better than a desperation move, too. The freshman helped Temple scratch out two wins while losing another four games by 10 points or less. He finished with 20 touchdown passes against just eight interceptions. He also rushed for 332 yards and three scores.
And then he got worse.
Walker had a 13-to-15 TD-to-INT ratio last season and led the team with 106 carries. Rhule put the offense on his sophomore quarterback and Walker played like he’d been weighted down. Temple averaged just 4.8 yards per play last season, which ranked No. 116 nationally.
“Two years ago he was tremendous and then last year he forced a lot of things,” Evans said. “The offensive line was not real good, they had some injuries and there was no vertical threat.
“The coaches feel that with the rest of the team being better, Walker can take the next step.”
The offensive line brings back all five starters. Receiver Robbie Anderson, who flunked out of school after averaging 18.7 yards per catch in 2013 and scoring nine touchdowns in nine games, is back. Incoming freshman running back T.J. Simmons, a former Notre Dame target and one-time UCLA commitment, should be a factor. It’s enough that Walker has options. He even has Florida transfer Colin Thompson at tight end.
“Temple has gained a lot of depth on offense, just not at quarterback,” Evans said. “If Walker got hurt, that would be the biggest negative for the year. They really think he moves forward, assuming the rest of the offense grows with him.”
Could Temple count as a quality win for Notre Dame?
If the Owls meet expectations they’ll contend for the American Athletic Conference title and push for double-digit wins. Temple opens at home with Penn State after losing 30-13 in State College last season. Win that one and the Owls could be in line for a shock third season under Rhule.
Clearly, the Temple athletic department sees that as a possibility. It rewarded Rhule with a four-year contract extension in June after he went 8-16 the past two years
“I’ve always felt beating Penn State might do more for Temple than winning a conference championship or winning a bowl game,” Evans said. “They haven’t beat Penn State since the 40’s and they cast a big shadow here.”
It’s enough to make Notre Dame the second-biggest date on Temple’s home slate, a rare backseat for the Irish. But if the Owls upset the Nittany Lions, Notre Dame will gladly take it. Because that would mean beating Temple could be seen as more than an anonymous win.