It’s been a long offseason for the Temple University football team since a 2-10 record in the first year of head coach Matt Rhule’s tenure.
In 2013, the Owls found a long-term quarterback solution in freshman P.J. Walker
, who will make his first opening game start Thursday night against Vanderbilt.
Rhule, Walker and the rest of the Owls are expecting much bigger things in 2014 and a win over an SEC bowl team in the Commodores would be a good place to start.
“We’re so much more ahead this year than last year and it’s definitely a good feeling,” said junior linebacker Tyler Matakevich
, who led the country in solo tackles in 2013. "Last year was rough, but we weren’t down after it because there was so much we can learn. As soon as it was over, we went right back to the drawing board, pushed guys to the breaking point.
“We’re really excited right now. The offense and defense are flying around. We couldn’t be more excited to play Vanderbilt.”
The Owls opened last season by going to Notre Dame and were competitive in a 28-6 loss. Rhule hopes the experience helps the players as they prepare to open another season on the road.
“After going to Notre Dame, no moment was too big,” said Rhule. “You walk out of the locker room, they’re walking in, the band’s playing, that’s a powerful, powerful scene. It was good to experience that.”
After Vanderbilt, the Owls will play their home opener against Navy. They also host Delaware State and travel to Connecticut in September in what seems to be a critical opening stretch if they want to return to a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
Last season, Temple started 0-6 and lost a couple close games early that sent them into a downward spiral.
“From a team standpoint we feel pretty good,” said Walker. “We’re practicing at a higher level every day. We’re going to try to force a lot of turnovers on defense and put up a lot of points on offense.
“(The first few games) are a major thing. The faster you start, the higher your chances of being unstoppable throughout the season. We’re going to go out, play as fast as we can and show a lot of people we are a really good team. “
Added Matakevich: “Feeding off last year, when we won (against Memphis) at the end of the year, nobody understands how much that drove us, we were finally clicking as a team. And everybody realized what happens when everybody does their job. To get one of the first two would be awesome, but we want to win them all.”
The Owls will be playing a Vanderbilt team under first-year head coach Derek Mason
, who was the defensive coordinator at Stanford before taking over the Commodores from James Franklin, who moved on to Penn State.
Rhule admitted facing a team with a first-year head coach brings its own set of challenges. Vanderbilt will be a power running team, especially with most of their receiving threats gone, including current Eagle Jordan Matthews
“It’s awful when it’s a new coach,” admitted Rhule. “You’re watching Stanford film, NFL film … But the biggest issue is focusing on what we need to do. We played some good teams last year, and basically what our team did determined whether we won or lost.
“We know Vanderbilt will be really strong on the lines. They have four offensive linemen back. Whether our O-line and D-line can hang in there against their big people will be a key to the game. We’re going to be really aggressive and in crucial moments, the players will need to do what they’re trained to do.”
The Owls will go into the game with some issues. Wide receiver John Christopher
and running back Zaire Williams
are banged up and it’s questionable how much either will be able to contribute.
There also hasn’t been a definitive answer to the kicking situation – the Owls made just three field goals last year, two in the final game – as Tyler Mayes
and Austin Jones continue to battle for the No. 1 spot.
“We’re confident in them,” said Rhule. “If the situation calls for it, we’re going to kick it. And if we don’t make it, the next time we’ll kick it again.”
No matter how the first game plays out, Rhule stressed it is a long season.
“I learned last year I looked at it the same way (that September was critical), and if you win those games, you feel you’re set and you get complacent,” said Rhule. “And if you lose those games, it’s all lost. One of the issues I’ve encountered here is guys looking at the schedule saying we can beat them, we can’t beat them, we have to beat them.
“You know what, let’s be the kind of team that plays and gets better and better and better. I expect us to start strong, and if we don’t I expect us to finish strong. I want to be that team that doesn’t flinch.”
The 2013 season was tough, but the Owls found a quarterback in P.J. Walker and gained some momentum at the end of the year. Now they are ready to see how much they've improved when they open the 2014 campaign at Vanderbilt.