Temple’s amazing turnaround lifts Owls into Top 25 before huge game against Notre Dame
It was a moment that Temple coach Matt Rhule still remembers so vividly. Nine years ago, when Rhule was a first-year assistant for the Owls under new coach Al Golden, the staff had inherited a downtrodden program that had been kicked out of the Big East after 2004 for its lack of competitiveness and hadn't had a winning season for 15 years.
The abysmal state of the program was evident to Golden and his staff during that brutal first year in 2006 in which Temple went 1–11. The Owls didn't score a touchdown in their first three losses of that season during which they were outscored 133–3.
So when they finally found the end zone in their fourth game, a 41–7 loss at Western Michigan, there was plenty of celebration. "People were hugging each other on the sidelines," Rhule tells The Inside Read with a laugh. "It was such a big deal. They were so excited."
These days, 21st-ranked Temple (7–0) has even more reason to be excited entering Saturday's nationally televised home game against No. 9 Notre Dame (6–1), perhaps the biggest contest in school history.
"To be at this moment now, it's just very cool," Rhule says. "It's an unbelievable moment to have all this recognition for the school."
Saturday's game is significant for Rhule because with a win his team would continue to control its destiny to earn the Group of Five's sole automatic berth in one of the six New Year's Day bowls. Temple still has four AAC conference games remaining, one of which is against another Group of Five contender, 16th-ranked Memphis (7–0, 3–0) on Nov. 21. The Owls could also face Houston (7–0, 4–0), the AAC's other Group of Five contender, in the AAC championship game.
Talk of a New Year's Day bowl shows just how far Temple has come in the last decade, especially under Rhule, who is in his third season as the Owls' head coach. In September, Temple beat Penn State for the first time since 1941. The Owls have gotten off to an undefeated start with a stingy defense that's eighth in FBS in points allowed (14.6 points per game), sixth in rushing yards allowed (91.9 yards per game) and eighth in sacks (3.29 per game).
The 40-year-old Rhule has emerged as one of college football's most respected young coaches and is already being mentioned as a candidate for Power Five jobs. But the only future that Rhule is interested in discussing is the impact Saturday's game could have on Temple for years to come.
"It's such an amazing institution in a great city with a beautiful campus," Rhule says. "Not everyone has a chance to see it or know it. If we can bring attention to the school itself by having such a big football game, it's exciting for everybody."
Temple wasn't much fun to watch during Rhule's inaugural campaign two seasons ago. His first game was at Notre Dame, a game in which he still remembers hearing the Fighting Irish's legendary bagpipes.
"I was like, 'Oh my goodness, this is it,' " Rhule says. "It was a cool moment to sit there and be like, 'Wow. I'm a head coach and I've worked hard to get to this point. Here's Temple football from where we first started under Al to here we are playing on national TV.' That felt like a real accomplishment."
Rhule's team ended up losing to the Irish 28–6, the first of 10 defeats that season. But Temple was closer than its disappointing record indicated. The Owls lost 22–13 to a Houston team that made a bowl that season. Their loss to Fordham came on a Hail Mary in the game's final seconds. They fell by just two at Idaho, gave up the go-ahead touchdown at Rutgers in the final minute and were defeated on a last-second field goal by a Central Florida team that ended up winning the Fiesta Bowl that season.
But what Rhule considers a defining moment for his tenure as Temple's coach came in the last game of the 2013 season: The Owls won at Memphis 41–21. "That was a really proud win for me," Rhule says. "The way our kids fought and found a way to win it."
There are 25 current Temple players who made the trip for that victory over the Tigers, including junior starting quarterback P.J. Walker, senior defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis (the Owls' current leader in tackles for loss, with 7.5) and senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who tops the team with 65 tackles.
Memphis has a 17–3 record under coach Justin Fuente since that loss to Temple, while Rhule's team has gone 13–6. "What's cool about this team is that a lot of those same kids who lost those close games are now winning them," Rhule says. "I just knew that if we keep developing these kids at some point, we'll be good."
That was reinforced by what Rhule's defensive coordinator, Phil Snow, told Rhule after the 2013 season. "We're going to look back and say this was our best coaching job," Rhule recalls being told by Snow.
Rhule knew that too, which is why he didn't make any major changes after his disappointing first season. Golden also didn't implement a major overhaul after his horrific first season at Temple in 2006 and three years later took the program to its first bowl in 30 years.
"That taught me the values of development and having a long-term plan," Rhule says. "That's why my first year here, we didn't panic. I didn't go fire everybody. We didn't get out and say, Let's take a quick fix. We just did exactly what we had did in the first four years with Al."
Rhule remains appreciative of Golden, who was fired on Sunday as Miami's coach, and Boston College coach Steve Addazio, Rhule's predecessor at Temple, who signed many of the Owls' current players and led the program to a bowl win in 2011. Under Golden and Addazio, Rhule worked in nearly every possible coaching capacity.
He started out in 2006 as the Owls' defensive line coach, was quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator the next year and in '08 became offensive coordinator, a position he held for three seasons. When Addazio became Temple's coach in '11, he made Rhule assistant offensive coordinator, tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator. Rhule left to be the New York Giants' assistant offensive line coach in '12 before being hired in his current position.
"It's all really kind of a surreal thing," Rhule says.
Just like it was when Rhule spoke with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly following that loss against the Fighting Irish two seasons ago. "You've got a really good football team," Rhule recalls being told by Kelly.
Only Rhule didn't know it then, but he does now, even though he's coy about it. Regardless, before Saturday's game he'll take everything in. "No matter everything we've done, you take a moment," Rhule says. "But then you say, 'You know what, let's do something better. Let's do something bigger.' "
That's a smart approach because Temple scoring a touchdown now just doesn't mean what it used to.
Georgia Tech's Lance Austin makes most of his opportunity
As wild as Georgia Tech defensive back Lance Austin's 78-yard touchdown return of a blocked Florida State field goal was—it gave the Yellow Jackets a stunning 22–16 victory on Saturday night—so are the circumstances behind the score. Austin was on the field for Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo's 56-yard field goal attempt with six seconds left only because of the Yellow Jackets' biggest nemesis this season: injuries.
"They've been something else," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson tells The Inside Read of his team's injuries this season. "It's just been nuts."
So was Austin's miraculous return on the final play of the game, which is being called the "Miracle on Techwood Drive," and which snapped the Seminoles' 29-game winning streak in ACC play.
The 5'10", 188-pound Austin had been Georgia Tech's fourth cornerback for most of the season, according to Johnson. But with senior cornerback D.J. White not able to play against Florida State due to injury, Austin got additional playing time. The sophomore got even more when White's replacement, Seth Durham, also got hurt during the game.
The injuries also meant that Austin also had to play more on special teams, otherwise he wouldn't have been on the field for Aguayo's attempt. Prior to the play, Johnson had just emphasized to his players to try to get some penetration. He didn't say anything about returning a potential deflected kick until he saw Austin about to pick up the ball.
With a laugh, Johnson says, "It went from, 'Get away from it,' to, 'Run, run, run!' "
When Austin cut back the first time during his return, Johnson thought he might be tackled. He didn't get to see the end of Austin's run because others blocked his vantage point.
"I could hear the crowd though," Johnson says. "That's how I knew he made it."
Saturday's victory was a much-needed win for a Georgia Tech team that had lost five straight games a year after winning the ACC Coastal Division and the Orange Bowl. It helps Johnson potentially keep alive his streak of taking the Yellow Jackets (3–5, 1–4) to a bowl every season since his arrival in 2008. They still have games remaining at Virginia (2–5, 1–2), against Virginia Tech (3–5, 1–3), at Miami (4–3, 1–2) and against Georgia (5–2).
"We've still got an uphill climb, but we've got a chance to dig ourselves out now if we can put together a little streak here and win three or four in a row," Johnson says.
All season, Georgia Tech has battled injuries. Johnson has lost seven players this season at A-back, either directly to injury or because he's had to move players to other positions to help compensate for players who have gotten hurt.
Against Florida State, Johnson was also without several safeties. And the team doctor informed him just 20 minutes before the contest that starting redshirt senior B-back Patrick Skov wouldn't play after coaches had been assuming all week that he would.
"It's been one of the craziest years I've ever seen injury-wise," Johnson says.
That's been further complicated by Georgia Tech's difficult schedule this season. The teams that the Yellow Jackets have played have a combined 44–12 record.
Johnson's team has had chances to win in the fourth quarter in all of its losses except Clemson. "I can never remember another year like this with all the injuries, the schedule and losing the close games," Johnson says. "It's been something else."
With the Yellow Jackets struggling, Johnson has tried each week to find something to motivate his players. Leading up to the Florida State game, he preached a message of opportunity.
"You've got a top 10 team coming to your place for homecoming and a whiteout," Johnson recalls telling his team. "This is one of the games you'll remember. It's only an opportunity if you take advantage of it."
And that's exactly what Austin did.
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