THERE'S NO question that Temple's football team is better than it was last year. How much better isn't as simple to quantify. In 2013, the Owls won only twice in Matt Rhule's head-coaching debut. But seven losses were in games they were in position to win, mostly because they had problems stopping the other guys from scoring. It's what bad teams do.
Now they're 5-6, going into tomorrow night's regular-season finale at 3-8 Tulane. They've lost three straight, and five of their last six, mainly because they've had trouble scoring. Every team they've lost to is eligible to go to a bowl, which is what they're still trying to do for the first time in three seasons. Three losses were by eight points or fewer, all at home. Again, not quite good enough.
Yet if you'd said in August that they could finish .500, well, it would have sounded like something worth celebrating. Sometimes it's all about perspective.
"We want to hold ourselves accountable," said junior linebacker Tyler Matakevich, the leader of a defense that's held opponents to 16 or fewer in three of the last four games. "The whole goal is to just win. We've come a long way since last year, and people can be happy saying we made a big turnaround. But we should be in a better situation than we are.
"You're never satisfied. There's always obstacles to keep overcoming, things to work on every single day."
If the Owls have shown anything, it's that they are clearly capable of handling the teams they should be able to handle. Tulane might be another one of those kind of teams. The Green Wave has lost four of its last five. The win was at 7-4 Houston. In their two games since then, they've scored only 13 total.
The only other time the Owls played Tulane it was in the inaugural Sugar Bowl in 1935.
"Sooner or later, it's all going to come together for us," Matakevich said. "There's been games we've let slip away. Memphis, it came down to the wire, and they're going to win the league [AAC]. This past week [against 8-3 Cincinnati], we were right there with them. When you watch film and break it down, you see the mistakes you made. It's just the little things. That's definitely frustrating. Coach always stresses how important the little things are. And you just sort of yes them to death, stuff like that. You say I got it, I got it. But until it actually happens and I see the results, it's like half an inch where you don't look at your key. That's hard to take.
"Unfortunately, other teams are just playing a little better on Saturdays."
At least nobody's questioning the effort. It's been more about the execution. And at some point that must be corrected, or nothing much will change.
"It can be easy to get down on yourself," Matakevich acknowledged. "If you play each snap the best you can, at the end of the day, you can look at the score and if you win, you win."
In the overall, six wins might not seem like such a major deal. But it's as many as the Owls won the previous 2 years combined. And while they did win 26 from 2009-11, those seasons were the first times they were bowl-eligible in 2 decades.
"That's everything," Matakevich said. "It's a big accomplishment. It would be really disappointing if we didn't, looking back at the games where we didn't get it done."
You don't get any mulligans. Good thing they have one more chance to get it right.