December 15, 2015

Coach Matt Rhule is aiming to lead Temple to its first Top 25 finish in 36 years, validating the program's turnaround on a national scale.

Toledo is just looking for Jason Candle to pick up where his predecessor left off.

Rhule looks to cap his rebuilding efforts with the No. 24 Owls by winning the Boca Raton Bowl and spoiling Candle's coaching debut with the Rockets on Tuesday.

Temple (10-3) went 2-10 in its first season under Rhule in 2013 and improved to 6-6 last season but failed to make a bowl game. The Owls not only reached one this year, but if they win it, they would break the team record for victories in a season. That 10-win campaign came in 1979, also the last time they finished in the AP poll at No. 17.

"I'd like to finish in the Top 25," Rhule said. "When people asked me early in the year, 'What does it mean to be in the Top 25?' I think I was pretty consistent saying, 'I want to finish in the Top 25.' That's a goal. If we win (the bowl), I think we would. That would be my goal."

The ranking may also provide some solace for Temple, which tumbled four spots in the poll after losing 24-13 at then-No. 17 Houston in the inaugural American Athletic Conference title game.

The Owls' rise garnered Rhule attention for the vacancy at Missouri, but the sides broke off talks and he recently agreed to a six-year contract to remain at Temple. He sees this bowl appearance as a chance to continue building the program.

"I think the bowl game is going to be a great opportunity for us," he said. "Obviously, to play on national TV, to be in Florida where a lot of our recruits are and be the only show on national TV that night."

Rhule has a key recruiting tool in senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich, the program's first first-team All-America defensive player, the winner of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Chuck Bednarik Award recipient. He's the nation's active leader with 481 career tackles, while his five interceptions this season ranked second in the conference.

"This is what you can do at Temple," Rhule said. "You can stand there with a kid from Alabama and a kid from Penn State and win a national award and deserve it. I think our level of expectation for our program has to rise."

Candle is expected to maintain Toledo's status as a Mid-American Conference contender just as his predecessor Matt Campbell did for four seasons before accepting the job at Iowa State last month.

Candle had been an assistant for the Rockets (9-2) since 2009, rising to offensive coordinator and associate head coach under Campbell.

"Matt has laid an unbelievable foundation here. Nine wins and two wins over Power Five opponents (then-No. 18 Arkansas and Iowa State) is a pretty dang good season.

"What I most appreciate about Matt is that he did it the right way. He did it with our guys going to class. You don't read about our guys in the newspaper other than for really good things on Saturday afternoons. That will continue to happen."

The Rockets, however, failed to make the grade in conference play, going 6-2 and losing 35-30 at home to Western Michigan on Nov. 27 to fall short of the MAC title game through tiebreakers.

"Ultimately, we didn't end up in Detroit (at the MAC championship game) and I know what the standard around here is," Candle said.

Toledo's offense is among the best in the league, ranking first in rushing yards per game (213.2) and tied for second in scoring (35.3 points). The balanced unit has 23 rushing touchdowns and 22 passing.

The running game packs a one-two punch with Kareem Hunt and Terry Swanson, who combined for 1,764 yards with an average of 6.0 per carry and 17 TDs.

Hunt has been particularly dangerous of late, with 545 yards and seven scores over the last four games. It's a welcome return for the Rockets after he missed the first two games of the season for violating team rules and sitting out two more with a hamstring injury. The junior led the MAC with 1,631 rushing yards last season, scoring 16 times.

Phillip Ely threw for 2,680 yards and was sacked only four times all season, the fewest allowed by any FBS team other than Air Force (two).

He'll contend with a Temple defense that tied for the AAC lead with 33 sacks and yielded an average of 215.5 passing yards - 130.3 and no TDs over the last three games.

The Owls, though, looked vulnerable on the ground in the AAC title game, surrendering 233 yards and three touchdowns on 40 carries.

Temple's offense has relied heavily on the run game. Jahad Thomas is second in the league with 1,257 rushing yards and his 19 total TDs rank only behind Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds' 21. The junior, though, has only topped 100 yards in one of the past seven games as his 5-foot-10, 180-pound body took a beating.

"I was pretty banged up a lot of the season," Thomas said. "If I felt bruises or pain here and there I knew I couldn't let my team down."

Quarterback P.J. Walker and wide receiver Robby Anderson are looking to show off their chemistry after hooking up 12 times for 150 yards and one touchdown against Houston.

Toledo's defense has allowed a conference-low 15 TD passes.

The Rockets are 7-3 in the all-time series, and the teams split two meetings when Temple was part of the MAC from 2007-11.

Toledo has reached a bowl for the fifth time in six seasons, while the Owls are in the postseason for the first time since beating Wyoming in the 2011 New Mexico Bowl.

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