When Al Golden arrived as head coach at Temple following the 2005 season, he inherited a program that had won just 30 games in the previous 15 campaigns.
How bad was Temple? The Owls were kicked out of the Big East for a lack of competitiveness, attendance and facilities.
The vagabond program went from the Big East (1991-2004) to independence (2005-06) to the Mid-American Conference (2007-11) to the Big East again (2012) and now the American Athletic Conference for the past three seasons.
It was Golden – recently fired by Miami – that started the process of turning Temple around. After the Owls went 1-11 in his first season at the helm, Golden pushed Temple up to nine victories by Year Four as the Owls landed their first bowl bid in 30 years.
When Golden went to Miami, former Notre Dame/Urban Meyer assistant Steve Addazio took over the Owls. Addazio upped the ante by taking Temple’s toughness and physicality to another level.
With the outstanding one-two punch of running backs Bernard Pierce and Matt Brown, as well as 6-foot-3, 230-pound quarterback Chris Coyer pitching in, the 2011 Owls finished seventh in the nation in rushing at an astonishing 256.3 yards per game with 38 rushing touchdowns and 5.2 yards per carry.
Pierce alone accounted for 1,481 yards on the ground and 27 rushing touchdowns. Brown (916 yards) fell just shy of the 1,000-yard mark while Coyer chipped in with another 462.
Meanwhile, the defense peaked at the same time the Temple running game did, allowing just 13.9 points per game in ’11 as the Owls won nine times for the second time in three seasons and just the fourth time in the history of the program.
Addazio’s success led him to Boston College, opening up an opportunity to Matt Rhule – the offensive line coach under Golden and Addazio from 2006-11 – to make his head-coaching debut at the age of 38.
Rhule made that debut on Aug. 31, 2013 in Notre Dame Stadium against Brian Kelly and his fourth Irish team after making a run at the national title less than eight months earlier.
Notre Dame won that game against Rhule and the Owls, 28-6. But Notre Dame took a 14-0 lead less than five minutes into the game and managed just 14 more points over the final 55:19.
Kelly got a strong inkling as to what Temple football under Matt Rhule was all about.
“There certainly was a toughness about them then as there is now,” Kelly said.
Temple enters the Saturday night clash in prime time with the No. 6 rushing defense (91.8 ypg.), No. 8 scoring defense (14.6 ppg.) and No. 14 total defense (307.7 ypg.).
To lend some perspective, four of Temple’s first seven opponents rank among the bottom 20 percent in total offense – Central Florida (No. 128), Tulane (No. 122), Penn State (No. 110) and Charlotte (No. 103).
In addition, as Rhule has brought Temple to heights never seen before in Philadelphia – the Owls are 7-0 for the first time in school history – only six of the 31 games coached by Rhule at Temple have been against Power 5 conference teams, although victories over Vanderbilt in ’14 and Penn State in ’15 are another strong indication of the direction of the program.
The common thread of physicality has run through the Temple program for the better part of the last decade, only now, the Owls have a bit more dash.
“They’re much more athletic as a football team now than they were then, especially on the defensive line and certainly in the skill-position area,” Kelly said. “You can see recruiting has really changed the look of their football team.”
In running back Jahad Thomas, the Owls have an elusive, cutback specialist. Quarterback P.J. Walker gives Temple a live arm with the legs to do some damage. Walker throws to a pack of 6-foot-3 wideouts, led by Robby Anderson.
The defense is led by legit NFL prospect/linebacker Tyler Matakevich, long and agile defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis, and undersized, but quick-off-the-edge ends Nate D. Smith and Praise Martin-Oguike.
The Owls have allowed just 29 second-half points in seven games – including none in the 24-14 come-from-behind victory over East Carolina last Thursday – after giving up just 23 points in the fourth quarter in ’14.
“They’re a four-quarter team as evidenced by their numbers, which are astonishing in the second half in terms of points scored,” Kelly said. “They’re a great second-half football team, which tells you a lot about their mindset and the kind of football team they are.”
Among Temple’s 16 losses in 2013-14 were three-point setbacks to Rutgers and Central Florida (which won 12 games in ’13), a seven-point loss to UConn, and three- (Memphis), seven- (Navy) and eight-point (Cincinnati) losses in ’14.
“Some of the scores jumped out at me,” Kelly said. “Very close games…We saw some things there, defensively in particular.
“We knew that this was going to be a physical football team and they were going to be relying on a very good defense and an opportunistic, tough offense. You could see that in some of the scores, especially late in the season.”
The question is: Will we see it Saturday night? It’s David vs. Goliath in Lincoln Financial Field, and David has more weapons than anyone could have imagined 10 years ago.