MATT RHULE has never been one to dodge a question, even he'll tell you that. Temple's second-year, 39-year-old football coach typically answers anything coming his way as honestly as he can.
But when asked whether he'd be disappointed if the Owls aren't able to go to New Orleans this weekend and earn their sixth victory, becoming eligible for a postseason bowl game, Rhule said it was a question he wouldn't address until after Saturday's game.
"I know we're making progress," Rhule said. "I'm proud as heck of these kids. They've come a long, long way, but I'm planning on winning next week. And if we lose, I'll come up here and answer any question."
How, then, would Rhule measure the success of this season after its 4-1 start? Since that fourth victory, over Tulsa on Oct. 11, Temple is 1-5. Its offense hasn't scored more than 20 points during that six-game stretch. And Saturday's 14-6 loss to Cincinnati tied the lowest point total during Rhule's short tenure at Temple, matching the six points Temple scored in his debut in a loss at Notre Dame last season.
"I want to go to a bowl game," Rhule said. "That's one of the stalwarts of what we need to get done. So I'm planning on it, and, if we don't, then I would be disappointed. I measure success that way, I measure success in not reading about our kids getting in trouble, I measure success in our kids being academically eligible and I measure our success in terms of how we recruit. We're trying to build.
"I think from the start I've never told you I was one of those guys that was going to come in here and try to win in 2 years and get another job. I'd like this program to be rolling as the future moves forward. Losses like this can be painful, they're really painful."
Rhule took the brunt of the blame for Saturday's showing. He acknowledged misusing timeouts and not managing the clock efficiently, and said he'd be up all night thinking about the decision in the fourth quarter to not go for it on fourth-and-1 from the 9-yard line. He instead elected to attempt a field goal, which Austin Jones missed wide right.
Saturday's game mimicked the ones before it. The Temple defense went toe-to-toe with one of the American Conference's elite offenses, holding the Bearcats to 14 points when they entered the game averaging just over 37. But, as has been the case for the duration of the six-game slide, the Owls did not have the offense to put themselves in a position to win the game.
Temple (5-6, 3-4 American) lost by three to conference champion Memphis. The Owls were in a one-possession game in the second half against Penn State before letting the game get away after turning the ball over multiple times.
"We're really a good team," senior running back Kenny Harper said. "We let a lot of games this year slip away.
"We talked about [how] this six-game stretch is going to make us or break us, we're going to see who we really are. We had a lot of opportunities. We could have won the conference."
The 4-1 start to the season came mostly against teams Temple was favored to beat. The going was always going to get rough, which was evident in back-to-back defeats on the road against Houston and Central Florida.
Saturday's matchup with Tulane (3-8, 2-5) will be the last chance this season to right the ship. And, as with those games in the beginning of the season, Temple will be favored.
"It has nothing to do with how we started or finished," Rhule said. "At the end of the day, I think every team we've lost to is a bowl team. That doesn't make it OK to lose to them, but we've lost to good teams, we've beaten teams that weren't very good, and we were able to beat one team that's going to a bowl. I look at each game the same way, I want to win every game."
"It would mean a lot," senior wide receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick said of becoming bowl-eligible. "That's really all our focus has to be on, just winning next week."
Temple's season finale in New Orleans, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN2, comes against a Green Wave team that hasn't had much success this year. Tulane comes into the weekend 2-4 over its last six games, the most recent a 34-6 drubbing at East Carolina on Nov. 22.
Despite Tulane's struggles, and with the way his offense has been playing of late, Rhule is aware of the challenge the Green Wave will present.
"They're a tremendously aggressive, attacking defense," he said during yesterday's weekly American Athletic Conference coaches teleconference. "They're going to put nine guys on the line of scrimmage, play man-to-man, challenge you. It's really fun to watch them play defense."