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Temple's success this year was forged in wake of tough losses

MOST EVERY success story has a genesis. For Temple's football team, especially the senior core, it's not hard to identify.

MOST EVERY success story has a genesis.

For Temple's football team, especially the senior core, it's not hard to identify.

Two years ago, the Owls and first-year coach Matt Rhule lost at home to FCS Fordham by a point on a 29-yard touchdown pass with four seconds left to drop to 0-3 on the way to a 2-10 finish. That came after they'd lost five of their final six the year before to finish 4-7. Fordham hadn't beaten an FBS team since the program was restored in 1970.

"That was the worst," said senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who will help lead the 20th-ranked Owls (10-2) on Saturday afternoon at No. 17 Houston (11-1) in the first American Athletic Conference championship game. "But it was probably the best thing for this team. You talk to some of the guys, they can tell you everything about that (following) week, because of everything we went through on this (practice) field.

"We just really found out, like, who you were as football players, and what kind of team we wanted to be."

It actually was a fortnight, since Temple had a bye after Fordham before traveling to Idaho.

"I mean, it just made you realize if you wanted to play football at Temple University," Matakevich continued. "It pushed you to your limits. And all of us who are still here now, we were there."

And they'll never forget.

"It was worse than (preseason training) camp, but condensed into a much shorter period," senior defensive linaman Matt Ioannidis said. "It was the absolute low point. The coaches came at us from every which angle, challenged us to see who was a dog and who really had some fight in them. And (Rhule) said the guys who are built for it rose to the occasion and the ones who weren't fell to the back of the line.

"That's when things began to grow into what it's become. We just needed to change the direction that it was going."

It didn't happen in a week. Or even a year. The Owls lost by two to Idaho, which didn't beat anyone else that season. And later came excruciating losses at Rutgers (on a 33-yard, fourth-and-10 pass with 35 seconds left) and to No. 17 Central Florida two weeks later coming off another bye (on a last-play field goal).

But . . .

"Eventually, we started to figure this out," Ioannidis said.

And here they are, making all kinds of history at a place that's had little in the way of highlights.

"I've tried to block that out," Rhule said laughing when asked to look back. "It wasn't that we lost to Fordham. We took the subway down, and we have, like, a no cellphone (rule). Everyone was on their phones, acting like hotshots. I just remember sitting there before the game, saying this isn't the team I want to coach. The night before I told them, 'Listen, you guys, at some point in your lives, you're going to have to learn it's about who you are.' It wasn't a good day.

"So we practiced in full pads, ran gassers, got back to the essence of who we are. I let the seniors leave. I didn't want them to go through that. I let them regroup and decide what they wanted to do. We made it as competitive as we could. We made a decision to be as tough as we could be. It was physical. We went to Idaho and ran gassers on the field before the game.

"I just think that mentality set the tone. We went with the younger guys. Not because there was anything wrong with the older guys. We just said if we're going to go down this year, we'll go down fighting and swinging. From that, I think you can see the work ethic of this team and the kids who play for us now."

And so 2-10 became 6-6, which has turned into tying the 36-year-old school record for wins in a season, with two games to play. And there's no reason to think this can't continue. Eventually, Fordham might become little more than a distant memory.

"When you start winning, the kids you're recruiting (now) weren't here for that (losing)," Rhule went on. "They hear about it, but they didn't go through it. All they know is that in their first year at Temple, we're 10-2. You need to build that spirit with each class . . . Our kids don't know what it feels like to get a bowl gift (or) to wear a sweatshirt that says whatever whatever bowl. The last couple of years, you say to yourself, 'That's why we do (all the work).' It's part of the reward. You want to have expectations that something good's going to happen."

Quarterback P.J. Walker and running back Jahad Thomas, both juniors, experienced a similar transformation in high school together. They were teammates on an Elizabeth High School team that went 1-9 their first season. Three years later, they were winning the state title.

"It's definitely an honor to be in this situation and have a great opportunity," Thomas said. "We came here to play in these kind of games. As a kid, you dream of doing big things. But to see them actually come to real life, we had no idea it would go like this. We talked about how crazy it is that it's happening again. That's why you don't take any win for granted."

Walker, who became the starter midway through 2013, got criticized a year ago when his numbers fell off. But there were extenuating circumstances, notably the lack of playmakers around him and an inconsistent line in front of him.

Nobody's criticizing him anymore. Or much of anything else that's going on at 10th and Diamond.

"All I can do is go out there and play," said the guy who recently became Temple's career leader with 51 touchdown passes, including 18 this season (against six interceptions). "The only thing that matters is what my team thinks, because we've had to handle a lot."

It tends to stay with you.


No. 20 Temple at No. 17 Houston

American Athletic title game

Noon Saturday, TDECU Stadium, Houston

TV: 6ABC. Radio: The Fanatic (97.5 FM)

Forecast: sunny, mid-60s

Records: Temple 10-2, Houston 11-1

History: Houston leads, 4-0, including a 31-10 win at home last year.

About Temple: Owls beat Connecticut at home, 27-3, to clinch East Division ... Haven't allowed a touchdown in last two games ... Senior LB Tyler Matakevich is AAC Defensive Player of the Year ... Have never won 11 games ... Only conference title was in 1967 in the old Middle Atlantic, four years before they began playing at Division I level ... Junior QB P.J. Walker has thrown for a program-record 51 career TDs, 18 this season ... Austin Jones needs three FGs to tie the school record of 23 in a season (Don Bitterlich, 1975) ... The winner almost certainly gets a spot in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 31 ... Either way, Owls will go bowling for first time since 2011.

About Houston: Cougars and first-year coach Tom Herman (former Ohio State offensive coordinator) beat Navy at home to secure West, 52-31 ... Lost the week before that at UConn by three without starting QB Greg Ward Jr. (ankle), who's thrown for 16 TDs and rushed for 17. He completes almost 70 percent of his throws ... They average 42 points a game ... Have won 10 conference titles. The last was in 2006 (Conference USA) ... Have won 12 games once (13-1 in 2011) ... Seven wins were by 21 points or more ... Defense has forced 28 turnovers ... Demarcus Ayers has 89 catches for 1,140 yards.