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.”

Villanova stays put at No. 2 for the 3rd straight week

Villanova stays put at No. 2 for the 3rd straight week

Villanova stayed put in the national rankings this week.

The defending champion Wildcats remained the No. 2 overall team in the Associated Press top-25 poll behind 24-0 Gonzaga. The Bulldogs received 59 first-place votes while Villanova received five votes. Kansas, which came in at No. 3, received the other No. 1 vote.

The Wildcats stayed where they were in the rankings after holding their own with two comfortable road wins, in large part thanks to sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson. Brunson was the big man on campus this week, beginning with a team-high 18 points in a 75-62 win at DePaul on Monday. He followed it up with his first career double-double as he put together a 22-point, 10-assist effort in a blowout win over Seton Hall in Newark on Saturday.

The win over the Pirates meant the Wildcats clinched a share of the Big East regular-season title for the fourth straight year. One win in their last three regular season games or one loss each by Butler and Creighton would hand Villanova sole possession of the Big East crown. 

Therefore, it's only fitting that the Wildcats' next two games are against none other than Butler and Creighton. Butler handed Villanova its first loss of the season back on Jan. 4 at Hinkle Fieldhouse, but the No. 22 Bulldogs have to travel to Philadelphia for the rematch on Wednesday. The No. 23 Blue Jays then head to the Pavillion for a Saturday afternoon duel. The Wildcats beat Creighton, 80-70, on New Year's Eve in Omaha.

At this point last season, Villanova had four losses (two in conference) and had just a one-game lead in the Big East. This year, they have much more room for comfort, albeit with a tough week with two ranked opponents ahead of them. 

Behind the top three, which remained static this week, the Pac 12 had three teams ranked 4-6 – Arizona, UCLA and Oregon – in the poll this week. The ACC had six teams in the top 25, including No. 7 Louisville, No. 8 North Carolina and No. 10 Duke. Baylor, which lost to Kansas on Saturday, fell from No. 4 to No. 9. 

Temple's youth shows again as lead slips away late in loss to UConn

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Temple's youth shows again as lead slips away late in loss to UConn

BOX SCORE

Temple’s Sunday tilt with UConn at the Liacouras Center was the embodiment of a young team trying to find its way.

The Owls had a double-digit lead against one of the hottest teams in the nation, thanks in part to their young guys producing in pivotal moments in the game.

However, the inability to finish cost Temple again, as the Owls allowed Jalen Adams to convert a reverse layup with 2.9 seconds remaining in a 64-63 loss to the Huskies (see Instant Replay).

“It’s hard,” Temple Head Coach Fran Dunphy said after the loss. “We have two of these now. We have Tulsa (70-68 on Jan. 14) and Connecticut at the buzzer at home. There’s not a lot to say.

“If we all make one better decision, including me, whether it’s a defensive set, a substitution or whatever. They hold onto the ball, they get a rebound, they make a shot, whatever it happens to be. We all make one better decision and we’re coming away with two great wins in Tulsa and UConn and not sitting here after two tough losses.”

After UConn hit a three to tie the game at 60, Temple freshman Quinton Rose made a huge three-pointer of his own to put the Owls back up 63-60 with 2:32 left in the game.

With Temple (14-14, 5-10 AAC) still clinging to a three-point lead, sophomore Shizz Alston, Jr. came up with a huge offensive rebound, only to turn it over with 1:08 left on the clock. Adams came up with the steal and raced up the court, but was fouled by Rose while attempting a dunk.

Following Adams’ two makes at the free-throw line, Temple’s lead was trimmed to just 63-62. On the ensuing possession, senior Daniel Dingle was fouled by UConn guard Rodney Purvis.

Dingle missed the front end of a one-and-one set at the line, which set the stage for Adams’ acrobatic shot to give the Huskies (14-12, 9-5 AAC) their seventh win in the last eight games.

“We knew they were going to come off that high ball screen with Adams,” Dunphy said. “We needed to sit down and keep him in front of us. One guy could have helped a little bit more than he did. It would have been a drive and kick for an open jumper, but it would have been better than [a layup]. The other guy just needs to sit down on that play and keep Adams in front of him, but we knew that ball screen was coming.”

“I honestly thought the ball was going to Purvis because he made the last three shots, so I did my best to deny him,” Dingle said. “[Adams] did a fantastic move.”

Things had been going Temple’s way for a majority of the night. The Owls led for the vast majority of game time thanks in part to 5 of 9 shooting from three in the first half, which gave them a 35-29 halftime lead. The lead increased to 56-46 with 8:29 left in the contest.

Dingle’s all-around play and leadership helped push Temple ahead. Freshmen Damien Moore and Alani Moore II combined for 22 points on 9 of 10 shooting.

However, the Owls went cold late. Temple made only 2 of 12 three-point shots in the second half.

UConn's day went in the opposite direction as the Huskies shot a blistering 54.2 percent in the second half and 62.5 percent from downtown. Purvis poured in 13 of his game-high 18 after intermission.

“The younger guys are doing very well,” said Dingle, who finished with 17 points, six rebounds and six assists. “We’re going to learn how to win. They’re doing a great job. It just so happens that we let one get away again.”

The Owls have made close defeats a habit. Sunday marked their fifth loss this season by five points or less.

These type of losses are the reason why Temple is in the eighth spot in the American Athletic Conference. With three regular-season games left and the AAC conference tournament quickly approaching, this Temple team, which holds victories over No. 9 West Virginia and No. 17 Florida State, will need to start showing the same promise it had earlier in the season to keep alive any dreams of dancing in the NCAA Tournament.

“I definitely talk to the guys about having that sense of urgency,” Dingle said. “For me, time is running out, so that’s the sense of urgency I’ve got. We’ve got to get there as a whole. I say that in the huddle, ‘We’ve got to get there.’ I remember being a freshman to now I’m in my fifth year. Time is not waiting, so every game we’ve got to go out there and play like it’s our last.

“The sense of urgency I think is all right but it has to increase. In order for us to get an opportunity to play in the NCAA [Tournament] – that’s something I want to do and I know the team wants bad for us as a whole and definitely for the seniors. Coach talks about the sense of urgency has to pick up.”