Rhule aims for more mature Temple in 2nd season

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Rhule aims for more mature Temple in 2nd season

It’s the football version of the chicken or the egg.

Do teams change their mentality and then start winning games or does the attitude adjustment come from first getting a taste of winning?

For the 2014 Temple Owls, it’s all about initially changing their frame of mind heading into the new season.

“Obviously, it’s like anything else, faith there’s no belief without evidence. If you start winning, then you feel like you know how to win and it’s easier that way,” Temple second-year head coach Matt Rhule said Thursday inside the program’s revamped locker room during media day. “A lot of programs, they’ve won forever. When you walk in there, kids expect to win.

“I think for our kids, the beauty and what’s been fun about this year, has been that they’ve had to do it the other way. They’ve had to believe they can win when they didn’t win. They’ve had to believe they can win when those last-second touchdowns came in to rip their hearts out. For us, we’ve just attacked the mindset.”

Working on the psyche seems like a good place to start for a team that finished with a 2-10 record a season ago, especially when you consider five of those losses were decided by a touchdown or less.

“I think last year we were pretty much immature. We kind of didn’t value the gift of the game,” senior running back Ken Harper said. “Our mindset, we had a lot of freshmen playing and a lot of them didn’t know how hard it is to win an actual college football game.

“The whole offseason coach has been pushing us to go as hard as we can and play at a championship level. Over the summer we’ve been trying to get that mindset that you’ve got to take every chance you can get. You’ve got to go as hard as you can and do as much as you can to make it count.”

Quarterback P.J. Walker made his opportunity count last season, wrestling the starting job away after coming into the year third on the depth chart.

While Walker may have initially received playing time because of the ineptitude of others, he made sure his own play kept him in the driver’s seat. Walker threw for 2,084 yards and 20 touchdowns in nine games (seven starts) as a freshman to solidify his spot under center.

Now the unquestioned starter, Walker is focused on leading a Temple offense that averaged 24.9 points last season and turning those impressive numbers into wins.

“I definitely stepped up to the plate, not just by being a vocal leader but just leading by example,” Walker said. “Coach Rhule pushed me throughout the whole offseason, throughout the summer to be a leader. I just took what he said as advice and I just ran with it.”

Walker’s progression for the Owls’ weapon-filled offense is key. However, the real test of TU’s success in 2014 will be the ability to bounce back on defense and special teams.

The Owls allowed 29.8 points last season and ranked 90th in total defense. They were particularly brutal in the secondary, rating 120th against the pass and recording just three interceptions.

“It’s been my job this whole offseason, as soon as the last game got over, to get this defense on the right path,” junior linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who led the nation with 99 solo tackles a year ago and enters 2014 on a host of national watch lists, said. “Me and a few guys really sat down and went right back to the drawing board and really tried to figure out what we did wrong last year. Completely change the mentality of no more pointing fingers. If the defense doesn’t let anyone score, they can’t win.”

The kicking game was even worse, with three different players combining to go just 3 for 9 on field goal attempts. The Owls also missed five PATs during the campaign.

“Going through what we went through last year, I’ve had so many people on radio shows and national radio shows say to me they’ve never seen a team that only had three interceptions that they picked off and only made three field goals,” Rhule said.

The young Owls, who were picked to finish eighth in the 11-team American Athletic Conference, are confident they can show improvements in those two areas and get back into the bowl picture.

It all starts with attitude.

“Us going out there each day, it’s not going to happen again. We had a saying on the back of our shirts every time we worked out saying, ‘Never again,’” Walker said. “That was our mentality every day. Never again will we have a 2-10 season.”

Penn State men's hockey ranked No. 1 for first time in program history

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Penn State men's hockey ranked No. 1 for first time in program history

At 16-2-1, Penn State's men's hockey team is ranked first in the nation for the first time in program history.

The Nittany Lions have improved each of the last four years under head coach Guy Gadowsky. 

Their record by year:

      2013-14: 8-26-2
      2014-15: 18-15-4
Last season: 21-13-4
This season: 16-2-1

Penn State received 30 of 50 first-place votes in the USCHO Division I poll. Denver is ranked No. 2, followed by Boston University, Minnesota-Duluth and Massachusetts-Lowell (see USCHO poll).

Penn State was ranked fourth last week before sweeping Michigan State.

Villanova focused on learning from win over Seton Hall, not No. 1 ranking

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Villanova focused on learning from win over Seton Hall, not No. 1 ranking

A few hours before Villanova hosted Seton Hall on Monday night, head coach Jay Wright came home and talked to his wife, Patty.

“You know you’re No. 1?” she said.

Wright didn’t react much to the news, nor did the players on the team when they found out during the pregame meal a little bit later.

“It’s not really that big of a deal this time,” Wright said. “I think we were all much more concerned with Seton Hall.”

Being No. 1 may almost be old news at this point, but thoroughly dominating good teams at the Pavilion never gets stale for the Wildcats, who cruised to a 76-46 demolition of the Pirates on the same day they regained the top spot of the rankings after a week at No. 3 (see Instant Replay).

Senior Kris Jenkins sparked the win with 16 points, shooting 4 for 6 from the three-point line and 4 for 4 from the foul line — numbers he cared far more about than the No. 1 in front of Villanova.

“That’s just a number,” Jenkins said. “We focus on getting better each and every day. We can lose our next game and we won’t be No. 1.” 

Villanova reached the No. 1 spot in the AP poll for the first time in the program’s illustrious history last season, a couple of months before winning the national title on an iconic buzzer-beater from Jenkins.

The Wildcats then spent five weeks at No. 1 this season before a 66-58 loss to Butler on Jan. 4 moved them out of the top spot — only briefly, as it turned out.

“Every time you do something first is exciting,” Wright said. “And then you learn from it. I think we learned a great lesson last year and I think it helped us this year. And we learned a lesson again when we went to Butler. So you keep learning from it, that’s what we really take from it.”

As the Wildcats said last season, the most important thing is finishing the season No. 1. And they certainly showed once again that they have the chops to repeat as national champs — a prospect that Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard called “pretty exciting” even after his team had its brains beaten in.

“That’s a tough team to play,” Willard said. “They’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason. If you’re not clicking on all cylinders when you come here, that can happen.”

Willard went on to say that “if Josh Hart’s not the National Player of the Year, then there’s something wrong.” But against the Pirates, Hart had a modest 11 points as Villanova showed off its impressive balance with all seven players in Wright’s rotation finishing with at least eight points.

Afterwards, Wright credited his three seniors — Jenkins, Hart and Darryl Reynolds (eight points, nine rebounds) — for helping the team bounce back from a sub-optimal performance in Saturday’s 70-57 win over St. John’s at Madison Square Garden.

“I’m just really fortunate to have three guys who are experienced and have been successful but are really humble,” Wright said. “We looked at the film, told them St. John’s played harder than us, and we took care of it. I think our seniors set the tone.”

Saturday’s win wasn’t the only game at the Garden on Villanova’s mind. The last time the Wildcats played Seton Hall, they suffered a stinging defeat to the Pirates in the title game of the Big East Tournament. 

Jenkins, though, insisted, that rare loss didn’t offer any extra motivation. Neither did the fact that Villanova set a record with its 47th straight victory at the Pavilion. Or that Monday’s win was the program’s 1,700th of all time.

“Numbers are something that is becoming a challenge for us,” Wright admitted. “It’s a great challenge to have. Right now, it doesn’t really do anything for us. But trust me, at the end of the year, we take great pride in that. All it can do is distract us right now. We know we have to answer the questions and you guys do a great job. I usually learn the numbers from you guys. It’s just not gonna do anything for us right now.”

Wright may not always like talking about his team’s absurdly impressive accomplishments. But he certainly loves games like this one as the Wildcats dominated all phases, from start to finish.

Deadly long-range shooting? Tenacious defense? Creating turnovers and scoring off them? Big-time hustle plays and rebounds? Electrifying dunks? Villanova did it all Monday in front of a raucous section of students back from winter break and one spectator named Ben Simmons, who took in the game from a courtside seat and applauded with everyone else.

What’s it like coaching a game like that? Is it ever hard when your No. 1 team is up by 30?

“It’s not difficult at all,” Wright said with a laugh. “It’s enjoyable. Things are going well, so you’re enjoying yourself.”