Things didn’t necessarily go smoothly in Brian Kelly’s first season at Notre Dame. Three consecutive losses followed an era-opening win over Purdue to start the 2010 season. That Fighting Irish team appeared to have the train back on the tracks after earning three straight wins before a grinding derailment that included back-to-back losses to Navy and Tulsa, the latter at home to end the month of October.
The road remained bumpy in Kelly’s second season – which included turnover-laden losses to South Florida and Michigan to open the campaign – but things got smoother and smoother as Kelly’s culture continued to take hold in the Irish program.
So smooth, in fact, that Kelly brought Notre Dame to the brink of the program’s first national title in more than two decades in his third season – one that ended with a loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship Game, but not before a 12-0 regular season.
Maybe it’s fitting that Temple head coach Matt Rhule’s head coaching career began with a 28-6 season-opening loss against Kelly’s Irish on Aug. 31, 2013. It was the first of six consecutive losses for Rhule, who had left a position with the New York Giants to take his first head coaching position.
Rhule’s Owls finished 2013 with a lowly 2-10 mark, but they improved to 6-6 last year and bring a perfect 7-0 mark in 2015—and an overall eight-game winning streak—into tonight’s game against Kelly’s No. 9 Fighting Irish (6-1) at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Temple already has a 27-10 win over Penn State (Rhule’s alma mater) this season, but make no mistake – Saturday’s game is the biggest of not only Rhule’s brief career, but also in the history of Temple football.
Let that sink in for a moment.
The Cherry and White has played 1,065 games since its inception in 1894, that’s 121 years. The legendary Pop Warner and current Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians are among the program’s former head coaches and tonight’s game will be the first time No. 21 Owls have even played a game as a ranked opponent against another ranked team.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame has 11 national championships to its credit. None of the current Irish players can claim a national championship (defensive backs coach Todd Lyght did play for the ’88 title team), but safety Matthias Farley and cornerback KeiVarae Russell both started in the BCS title game. Six other Irish players, including current starting middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, played in that game as well.
Temple is also basking in its first shot at the national spotlight this week with ESPN’s College Gameday on campus for the first time ever (a fact impossible to miss by visiting Temple’s athletic web site). Notre Dame hosted the first-ever Gameday in 1993. Temple becomes the 66th school to host college football’s premier show. Unfamiliar cameras bring a new kind of pressure with them.
Notre Dame has its own TV show – Showtime’s A Season With Notre Dame Football. The 30-minute weekly series has chronicled ND’s 2015 season. Cameras have followed Fighting Irish players everywhere – including freshman defensive lineman Jerry Tillery to Ireland during fall break last week – since August.
Rhule and his Owls have two opponents this week – one is Notre Dame and the other is the attention that comes with playing Notre Dame. A tough task for a young coach leading a burgeoning program.
How important is experience in the spotlight? It’s hard to quantify in advance, but the World Series would seem to say it matters quite a bit. The Mets, who play in the media capital of the world, have just one player who has seen the field with World Series experience, while the Royals have a roster full of Fall Classic returnees.
Been there, done that…and doing it again.
Things still have to happen to teams in front of them in the rankings, but the winner of tonight’s game will still have a shot at earning one of four spots in the College Football Playoffs. The loser’s playoff hopes will end in the moments just before the calendar flips to November.
Rhule has taken Temple a long way in a short amount of time. Just how far they’ve come and how far they have to go will be determined under the bright lights.