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Brookover: Owls have chance to finish something special

Instead of a 7-0 start and a rise into the national rankings, there was a season-opening loss to Army and a slide back into the world of college football anonymity.

Instead of a 7-0 start and a rise into the national rankings, there was a season-opening loss to Army and a slide back into the world of college football anonymity.

Instead of a historic storm-the-field win over Penn State at the Linc, there was a penalty-filled loss at State College.

Instead of a pregame party hosted by ESPN's Game Day crew at Independence Hall followed by a national spotlight game against Notre Dame, there was a defeat at Memphis that left the head coach searching for answers down in Cape May.

In spite of it all, this year's Temple football team still has a chance to prove it is better than last year's Temple football team. All the Owls have to do is finish in a way they could not a year ago.

After so much went right in coach Matt Rhule's third season as the Temple coach, it all went wrong at the end when the Owls lost the American Athletic Conference championship game in Houston and followed it up with a listless loss to Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl.

"I'm never going to shake my head at winning 10 games, but we didn't finish the way we wanted to finish," Rhule said after that bowl game.

The coach and his players are obsessed with making the 2016 season about having a great finish instead of a great start. They are in position to do that because of the difficult course they have had to navigate to get to 7-3.

It started with that unexpected loss to Army on opening day at Lincoln Financial Field. Senior quarterback Phillip Walker threw three interceptions and Army rushed for 329 yards.

"I think the seniors so badly wanted to be great," Rhule said Tuesday after practice. "They tasted it last year and they so badly wanted to win and exceed what they did. When we played Army, they weren't having any fun. They weren't just focused on the game. They were feeling the pressure."

That pressure mounted when Army took a 14-13 lead into the final quarter and Temple wilted down the stretch. The Owls had lost a game they were supposed to win.

"Some people asked if they were overlooking the game," Rhule said. "I don't think they were overlooking it at all. They were just trying to do this great job as seniors and they stopped realizing it's just a game. So we had to go back, start over and say, 'Guys, just go play. Have fun and play.'

"I think we had to change our approach as coaches. We were even playing music in the locker room before the game, which is not really my style."

Still the Owls were only 1-2 after a Week 3 loss at Penn State and 3-3 following a Week 6 loss at Memphis. Two of the three wins were over out-of-conference opponents Stony Brook and Charlotte and the one conference win was over a mediocre SMU team. After the loss to Memphis on a Thursday night, Rhule headed to Cape May with his wife and kids and tried to clear his mind.

"I just kind of hunkered down and came back that Sunday and said, 'OK, you think you're a good coach, then turn the season around,' " Rhule said. "It's not turned around yet, but we're moving in the right direction."

Four wins in a row, including a last-second victory at Central Florida followed by an impressive game that avenged a loss at South Florida last season, has the Owls at 7-3, 5-1 in conference play.

"We just stopped beating ourselves," running back Jahad Thomas said. "We cut down penalties, we cut down turnovers and we started establishing the running game."

Boy, did they ever establish the running game. The Owls have rushed for 1,007 yards during their four-game winning streak, with Thomas and Millville's Ryquell Armstead doing most of the damage. Perhaps more amazing than the rushing total is the total number of rushes. The Owls have averaged 52 rushing attempts in their last four games.

Rhule said that after throwing 59 times and losing a first-half lead against Memphis, the Temple coaching staff decided it had to commit more to running the football, especially with the lead. Now Rhule and his staff are committed to finding a way to send his first recruiting class out with a happy ending, which would require a win in the Dec. 3 AAC title game and a bowl victory.

"All these kids have graduated or are graduating," Rhule said. "They've all done everything they could academically. They've all been awesome in the community. They're going to be the first senior class to go to back-to-back bowl games in school history. What they've done has been historic and I don't want them to get this far and have a regret."

All they have to do is finish the way last year's team started.