It seems the Temple football team is lining up against history with every game played this season. And after seven games, it can be safely said the Owls are embracing that pattern.
They haven’t blinked once.
Thursday night at East Carolina, the Owls flirted with disaster. With a national television date against No. 11 Notre Dame looming ahead on Halloween, a loss to the Pirates would have been a cruel trick for No. 22 Temple to absorb. But two touchdowns – and an opportunistic blocked punt – in a 73-second span of the fourth quarter allowed the Owls to depart Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C., with a 24-14 victory.
It wasn’t the most attractive victory, but good teams know how to grind it out even when things are ugly.
Playing as a nationally ranked team for the first time since 1979, Temple got it done. And the last time Temple had won a regular season game as an AP-ranked team was in 1936. Glenn Warner was head coach of the Owls that season.
You may have heard of him. He was better known as Pop. Yes, that Pop Warner.
If that blows your mind, consider the fact that Temple is now 7-0. It’s the first time that has ever happened, and this Philadelphia school has been playing football since 1894. For the mathematically challenged, that’s 121 years. On four other occasions, the Owls won their first six but couldn’t get to seven.
Most of it seems like ancient history.
With Thursday night’s victory, Temple can finally look ahead to this massive game against Notre Dame. It has been sitting there on the schedule card, seemingly cast in print that was double or triple the size of all other contests and so far away that the Owls would never get there.
If someone had told you in August that Temple would have a better record than the Irish when Oct. 31 did roll around, would anyone have believed it? Notre Dame is 6-1 with that 24-22 loss to Clemson earlier this month.
“I told them it was the best win I had ever been a part of,” Temple coach Matt Rhule said after the win.
Coaches don’t tell their players that type of thing unless they really mean it.
“I told the East Carolina kids as they left that in many ways they out played us and they probably deserved to win the game,” Rhule said. “That’s what college football is, it’s coming in and finding ways to win games like this.”
Outside the American Athletic Conference, college football fans might laugh at Rhule’s declaration. But opponents sweat over the thought of playing at East Carolina. The Pirates had not lost a conference game at home in October since 2006.
All of these unprecedented events for Temple football couldn’t come at a better time. The AAC, in its third season, is turning heads. Three teams have arrived in the national rankings. Three teams are still undefeated. One of those three will likely find itself playing on New Year’s Day and if any of them dare to dream, are the national playoffs out of question?
Maybe. Probably. Who knows?
Houston and Memphis, the other undefeated teams in the AAC, reside in the West Division. Temple is in the East and very well situated to be part of the conference’s first championship game on Dec. 6. That’s a big deal.
At 4-0 in the East, the Owls can think about hosting that inaugural championship game. Again, nobody was predicting that before the season. Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia as site of the AAC championship? It might happen.
Temple is 4-0 in the East. East Carolina is 2-2, followed by South Florida (1-1), UConn (1-2) , Cincinnati (0-2) and UCF (0-3). By the way, that AAC preseason poll had Cincinnati as the clear championship favorite with 22 votes, followed by Memphis (5), Houston (2) and UCF (1). Not one vote for Temple.
“I told my team in there, `We’re all going through this for the first time,” Rhule said. “I’m going through this for the first time. So we’re all making mistakes. But we all love each other, we’re battling, and guys made plays.”
That has been the pattern since the historic win over Penn State back on Sept. 5. There is no panic with this group, built around a strong defensive unit. Playing from behind at the start of the fourth quarter is no problem.
“We know what type of team we can be,” linebacker Tyler Matakevich told the Philadelphia Daily News. “The whole week, we knew it was going to come down to the fourth quarter. And we knew what was going to happen. That’s the mentality we have.
“The best part about this team is we’re just having fun out there. The environment was nuts. But we just played football. We were saying, ‘Relax, it’s going to be fine.’ ”
It’s a wonderful attitude to have; one that comes directly from a very smart head coach.
“I’m so proud of them for not looking ahead, or looking behind,” Rhule said. “I don’t want to diminish this by talking about what’s ahead. This is an accomplishment. Now we’re excited about what’s next.”