Penn State starts the 2015 campaign against a familiar foe--this season opener marks the 9th time they've faced Temple in the past 10 seasons, and they'll hope to keep one of the nation's longest single-opponent winning streaks alive. The Owls haven't shocked the Nittany Lions since a 14-0 shutout in Philadelphia two months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
But these are not your older brother's Temple Owls. In the past four years, these have been tighter contests than we've gotten used to: even last year's 30-13 "laugher" was tied at six midway through the third quarter. Matt Rhule undersaw a four-game improvement that saw Temple end the season with one of the country's better defenses en route to a 6-6 season, and they'll hope to build on that improvement with an upset in the Linc.
Jake Hyman covers Temple football for SBNation's Underdog Dynasty, and he was kind enough to answer some questions for me. So read on to find out what he thinks about Temple's chances on Saturday, as well as some key players to look out for, what a win would mean for this Temple program, and what makes this unlikely top defense click.
Black Shoe Diaries: Although this has been amongst the most one-sided "rivalries" in college sports, Temple has hung with Penn State the last four years. Is there any fear that with the sanctions ending, and James Franklin pulling in top-10 recruiting classes, that Temple may have missed its window to pull off the first win over the Nittany Lions since 1941?
Underdog Dynasty: Temple's chance to gain traction in the rivalry and upset the Nittany Lions is this Saturday. Seniors are abundant on both sides of the ball and the crowd at the Linc should be raucous and filled with Cherry and White attire covering Eagles green seats. This is Rhule's most talented team without question and have a great chance to surprise Saturday. Temple held with Penn State last year through the first before unraveling in the second half, but home-field, despite PSU fans coming in troves, should keep the game close.
Temple has put up banners around campus and have encouraged students to attend Saturday's matchup as the whole campus knows the importance of a victory. The Owls return Robby Anderson, who led the team in receiving and TD receptions in 2013, and have a revamped O-Line. Rhule told media Tuesday that DE Praise Martin-Oguike would likely be out, who led the team in sacks last season, so expect guys like Nate D. Smith and Haason Reddick to challenge Paris Palmer and others protecting Hackenberg. At home with seniors across both sides of the ball, Temple needs to capitalize with seasoned upperclassmen.
BSD: On the flip side, if Temple is able to pull off the upset--either this year, or down the line--how much would that mean to a program that seems like an afterthought, even in its own city?
UD: From what I've personally heard in practice, the players are just taking it as another game. They're reiterating it during each interview. Coach Rhule obviously played at Penn State during his college years, but he has the same mindset. For what it would mean personally, the game has paramount implications to a basketball-first school. They haven't beat Penn State in almost 75 years and would like that significant victory over an in-state power en-route to a breakthrough season.
Philadelphia has been engulfed by professional sports, including the Eagles, and has been thirsty for a football powerhouse to witness every Saturday. Matt Rhule's preached building "his brand of football" at Temple. If he gets Philadelphia acclimated with his style, then many positives will transpire for his team and the publicity would be tremendous come Saturday.
BSD: Al Golden took Temple from the brink of dissolution to respectability. It's been more up and down since he left, but how would you judge the first two years of the Matt Rhule tenure, which started with a 2-10 campaign before rebounding to .500 last year?
UD: Rebuilding takes multiple years and with a quarterback rotation and volatile defense, Rhule wasn't going to the bowl festivities his first year as a head coach. P.J. Walker was a gem he unearthed late in the 2013 season. He struggled last season due to a plethora of reasons, but talking to guys on the team about his confidence and poise, everyone believes he'll rebound. Rhule getting Phil Snow to coach the defense also translated extremely well last season.
Tavon Young, Martin-Oguike and Sean Chandler all have All-AAC potential and their play tied into the four win jump last season. The thing about Rhule that's exciting for the future is the contingency for improvement. He believes in not overlooking teams and getting better on both sides of the ball. Rhule's an approachable coach who can have safety in knowing he's here to stay with an offseason contract extension. He's earned it.
BSD: Bill Connelly wrote in his season preview that Temple's defensive turnaround from 2013 to 2014 might be among the best any team has ever had. With the entire starting 11 returning, what made last year's group so good, and where are they poised to keep improving?
UD: The opener against Vandy seemingly looked like a confidence builder that carried over throughout the season. Guys like Avery Ellis, Sharrif Finch and Hershey Walton weren't recognizable names to start the season, but flashed ability and came up with big plays at times. In the secondary, something had to click for Young, Alex Wells, who came off an injury early in the season, and Sean Chandler who were a dynamic trio in coverage and making key tackles or turnovers.
Going up against Christian Hackenberg and Cincy QB Gunner Kiel in back-to-back weeks, who Temple DC Phil Snow both called first-round talents, will be a serious test to see if 2014 was an anomaly or if the Owls are legit on defense. They forced four fumbles at home against a ranked ECU team last season, but winning the yardage margin and third downs as a priority over turnovers changed the landscape of the defense. As for improvement, Snow talked about the interior D-Line and Hershey Walton as potential upstarts in 2015.
BSD: Temple also returns plenty on offense, including quarterback P.J. Walker. But considering how mightily Walker struggled last year, is that necessarily a good thing? How far can Walker take the offense?
UD: Walker struggling won't make him have the fervor to play better, but having more weapons around him and a healthy O-Line will. Last year, Temple shuffled through guys and had to start lineman new to the position (Brian Carter) and freshman. Matt Rhule raved about Carter and his pension to improve on Tuesday, but having a consistent unit up front is crucial for Walker to bounce back. He had to move around the pocket and create due to the flux in the trenches, but stability will foster greater results for the junior. Getting Anderson back on campus is huge for Temple who was devoid of talent on the outside last season beyond Jalen Fitzpatrick. Seemingly like a trade, Anderson can operate as a go-to-guy for Walker as the QB got the senior re-acllimated to the offense this summer.
Walker's also in for a breakthrough season if starting running back Jahad Thomas develops into a two-way threat out of the backfield. Last season, Thomas couldn't find consistent lanes from the offensive line as the running game itself hindered Walker's production. He led the team with just 384 yards on the ground. Getting a full season from Walker's high school teammate is vital as Thomas has the potential to break the 1,000 yard mark for the first time since Bernard Pierce in 2012. The pieces are in place for Walker to once again break the 20 TD mark through the air and lead the Owls to a bowl game.
BSD: If Temple manages to win on Saturday, what will have gone right for the Owls? Which unheralded players will have come up big?
UD: The matchup on the outside with Hamilton and Lewis against Young and Chandler is an underrated topic not many people are following. Running contributions will be difficult Saturday as both teams are stout against the ground. If Temple is going to pull off the historic upset, both Tavon Young and Sean Chandler have to limit the duo and make Akeel Lynch beat them with his feet. Penn State ran for 258 yards last season against Temple in Happy Valley, according to Rhule, but Da'Sean Hamilton and Geno Lewis are way too dangerous to overlook.
As far as unheralded players, Haason Reddick is going to have to team with Nate D. Smith and create havoc on Hackenberg to make him uncomfortable in the pocket. Losing Martin-Oguike is crucial as he makes plays in the run game as well. Pressure from the edge rushers and containment of the wideouts will be valuable factors to look into if the Owls win or loss come Saturday.
BSD: The line is Penn State by 7. How do you see this one shaking out?
UD: For a season opener, rust will be an obvious factor as both teams have had substantial time off but it will be close. The turnover battle will decide who takes the keystone state matchup and both quarterbacks have to limit their mistakes. Teammates have said Walker has poise and a new confidence level as a junior while Christian Hackenberg is arguably the top QB in the nation. The Saturday matchup should be a blast to watch for both teams' supporters and the atmosphere will be unlike anything Temple's experienced in a couple of years.
It will be close, but Temple pulls out a 20-17 shocker against the Nittany Lions at home.
Thanks, Jake, and remember to keep reading his work at Underdog Dynasty to stay up to date on Temple football all season long.