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Temple focused on AAC championship game

OK, SO now Temple coach Matt Rhule, after reportedly speaking with Missouri on Sunday about its job opening, for whatever reasons is said to no longer be a candidate for that position.

OK, SO now Temple coach Matt Rhule, after reportedly speaking with Missouri on Sunday about its job opening, for whatever reasons is said to no longer be a candidate for that position.

So much for being distracted.

Time to talk about 17th-ranked Houston (11-1), where the No. 20 Owls (10-2) are playing Saturday afternoon (noon, 6ABC) in the inaugural American Athletic championship game for a chance to go to a New Year's bowl.

"This is a unique, wonderful week in Temple football history," Rhule, who has declined to discuss the Missouri situation, stressed on Tuesday. "I would say to everybody, don't waste it thinking about me. This is awesome. This is championship week. Don't worry about me. I'm right here, enjoying the week. These kids have earned this. We've worked hard to get here. I'm never going to talk about me. This program isn't about me.

"I do tell them everything that I can. I'm completely open and honest with them, because I ask them to be open and honest with me. I ask them to keep the things I tell them in-house, because it's our business.

"I think the distraction for the players would be like, 'Oh, my gosh, we're playing in the championship game,' or, 'We've got three guys playing in the Senior Bowl,' or, 'I've got agents calling about our players,' or 'I've got finals.' Those are distractions. Our team is way too strong to be distracted by anything with me."

Aren't you glad we cleared that up? Because next week it could be another Power-5 program that's expressing interest. And the reality is, that's a good thing. Even if it becomes, well, distracting. And then it becomes everyone else's business as well.

In the meantime, it's championship week. And when was the last time they got to say that on North Broad?

"You've got to live in the moment," said senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich, the Football Writers Association of America's National Defensive Player of the Week. "But you can't let it get the best of you. It's just another game, except this time after the game you get a trophy. People might think I'm crazy for saying that, but that's how you have to look at it right now."

As for the recent speculation surrounding Rhule . . .

"You can't think about that," Matakevich said. "You start thinking about that, then you're not focused. We're family, and everyone's sticking together. He told us what's going on. Simple as that. The only thing we can do is come out and finish what we started two years ago (when they went 2-10 in Rhule's debut)."

"(Rhule) addressed it in a team meeting," added junior running back Jahad Thomas. "We're not worried about it. He made a great comment: If somebody wants to interview you, he's going to sit down and listen and talk to them. That doesn't mean he's going anywhere.

"We're all just trying to be successful, in a really big game."

Maybe the biggest in program history. I mean, how many folks remember the inaugural Sugar Bowl in 1935? Or even the Garden State Bowl 36 years ago? Yes, the highlights have been few and far between. But this season has been all about rewriting history. Why stop at this point?

"This is what we dreamed of," Matakevich duly pointed out.

The Owls haven't allowed a touchdown in their last two games, both at home, after giving up 40 in a 20-point win at 2-10 SMU on Nov. 6 and 44 in a 21-point loss at 8-4 South Florida the following week. The Cougars - who have the kind of dual-threat quarterback in Greg Ward (16 TD passes, 17 rushing) that's given Temple problems in the past - average 42 points per. So something has to give. And Houston's defense has been among the national leaders in creating turnovers. The Owls have lost all four meetings, including the first-ever AAC game here in 2013. Last season it was 31-10 down there.

For whatever it means, Houston is favored by almost a TD. The Cougars beat visiting Memphis by one on Nov. 14 by scoring three TDs in the final 13 minutes with their backup QB. They then lost at Connecticut, 20-17, again without the injured Ward, who accounted for four TDs in last week's 52-31 West Division-clinching home win over Navy. The Owls closed with a 27-3 win over UConn, which was without starting QB Bryant Shirreffs. And they beat Memphis at home the week before that, 34-12.

Feel free to compare away.

"(Defensive coordinator Phil) Snow called us in (after USF) and said we had become complacent," said senior defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis. "We looked around the room and were like, 'He's right.' We really had gotten overconfident, based on some early success. And it had come back to haunt us. We'd absolutely lost our way. We had to flip that switch again.

"This week, everyone's got to do their one-eleventh more than ever."

The game's other QB, junior P.J. Walker, maybe isn't as high-profile. Yet he's been responsible for 20 TDs while throwing only six interceptions.

"If we win, I'm pretty sure the conversation will be about this football team rather than me," he said. "We're playing for one another. That's what's really important.

"(A title) would mean a lot, because it's the first one. But it probably wouldn't be the last."

Distract that.