SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Matt Rhule has his undefeated Temple Owls in a position to make a legitimate run at a New Year’s Six bowl with a win over Notre Dame this weekend. Given the difficulties of winning at Temple, Rhule has also put himself in a prime position to be hired by one of the myriad Power Five programs with an opening after this season.
Rhule faced Notre Dame in his coaching debut in 2013, and sixth-year Irish coach Brian Kelly has kept tabs on the 40-year-old ever since. On Tuesday, he offered a ringing endorsement of the third-year Temple coach in advance of Saturday’s primetime game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
“(He) has done a remarkable job,” Kelly said. “If you just look back on our game in 2013 and where he's taken this program, they are deserving of their ranking. They have earned everything that they have gotten this year as a football team.”
Temple ranked No. 21 in this week’s AP top 25 and has been on its short-term upward trajectory since its 17-point Week 1 win over Penn State. But the Owls went 2-10 in Rhule’s first year, then won six games in 2014 (though were not selected for a bowl). This year, behind a staunch defense that ranks No. 6 in Football Outsiders’ S&P+, Temple is 7-0 and is part of the AP top 25 for the first time since 1979. This is a program that's been trending up for longer than just two months.
After Al Golden and Steve Addazio saw some success in Philadelphia before him, Rhule had to essentially start from scratch in 2013. Temple was kicked out of the Big east after the 2004 season and went 1-22 as an independent in 2005 and 2006. Rhule joined Golden’s staff in 2006 and served varying roles (defensive line coach, QB coach, tight ends coach recruiting coordinator, offensive coordinator) and was there for the Owls' resurrection to a 26-12 record from 2008-2010.
But Temple hasn’t been as good as Rhule has it currently playing in years. Kelly saw signs of that success developing two seasons ago.
“What we saw is a physical team,” Kelly said. “They are much more athletic as a football team now than they were then, especially on the defensive line and certainly, in the skill positions, who they are recruiting, really changed the look of their football team.
“But there certainly was a toughness about them then that there is now. They are a four-quarter team, as evidenced by — their numbers are astonishing in terms of the second half, points scored versus points led (Temple has outscored opponents 137-29 in the second half).
“Just a great second half football team. That tells you a lot about their mindset and the kind of football them they have.”
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While Notre Dame possesses a far more talented depth chart than Temple — which signed only three Rivals four-star recruits since Rhule took over, compared to Notre Dame’s total of 52 four- and five-star players from 2013-2015 — this is a well-coached team with a stingy defense that’ll playing in its biggest game since World War II on Saturday. Notre Dame fans may be expected to out-number Temple supporters at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday, but Kelly is preparing his team for an intense atmosphere against a focused, motivated opponent.
“(They) just have a really solid football team,” Kelly said. “Again, one deserving of where they are, a top 25 football team. It will be a great challenge for our football team, going on the road, and one that we'll have to play very well.”