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.”