Rhule 'nervous' about Temple's opener vs. ND

Rhule 'nervous' about Temple's opener vs. ND

August 30, 2013, 10:00 am
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For the first time, Temple will play at Notre Dame where the famous Touchdown Jesus mural resides. (USA Today Image)

First game as a head coach. First game at Notre Dame. New offense. New quarterback. Opponent coming off a perfect regular season and an appearance in the national championship. Thirty-point spread. It'll probably be hot out, too. Like 92 degrees. Is pickle juice still a thing?

...

Matt Rhule, how you feeling?

"I said to my wife, 'Do you want to fly on the plane and go with us?' She's flying out commercial on her own. She said she'll see me after the game. She doesn't want to see me before. She doesn't want to be anywhere near me," Rhule said Tuesday.

"I was honest with the players. That's one of the things we try to do here. We try do be blatantly honest. I had to tell them, 'Am I nervous? Absolutely, I'm nervous. I'll be nervous every game. I've been nervous every game since I was in like fifth grade."

Come to think of it, Louis Nix was probably terrifying when he was in fifth grade, too.

Nix, a 6-foot-2, 357-pound senior defensive tackle and potential top-10 pick in next year's NFL draft, is the leader of a Notre Dame defensive front that's one of the best in the nation. And it'll be Nix, along with Stephon Tuitt beside him, who will be assaulting Owls starting quarterback Connor Reilly when Temple visits No. 14 Notre Dame on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (NBC/97.5 The Fanatic).

With Manti Te'o in the NFL, Nix anchors a defensive unit that led the nation last year in points allowed, giving up just 12.8 per game. (In fairness, no one was stopping Alabama that night.)

Rhule has spent the offseason reshaping Temple's offense into a pro spread, moving last year's starting QB, Chris Coyer, to H-Back, and taking last year's fourth-stringer, Reilly, and putting him under center. It's Reilly first start as a college quarterback -- he didn't even take a snap in a game last year -- and it's Temple's first live action with a completely new playbook.

There have been less fiery baptisms, and some coaches would tell their guys to block out everything that isn't between the sidelines. But not Rhule.

"I want them to kind of enjoy the environment," he said. "Sometimes you try to go to those environments and try to pretend, 'Hey, that not here.' It is there. There are 80,000 people out there screaming. Touchdown Jesus is right there."

So rather than pretend like it's just another football game, Rhule, who's been playing music at practice a la Chip Kelly all training camp, has started blaring the Notre Dame fight song.

"The players wanted to fight me last weekend over it," he said. "They thought I was playing some kind of mind game. I said, 'I'm not playing a mind game. This is what it's gonna be. Either, in that moment, you're going to back down, or you're going to love it.' And competitors love it. Last year, when we came to Philadelphia (Rhule spent 2012 with the New York Giants), that environment at the Linc was ridiculous. And the good players liked it. They enjoyed that environment.

"The game, at the end of the day, comes down to winning my one-on-one, winning vs. man coverage, covering my guy, hitting the blitz the right way. That's what the game comes down to.

"But if you're not prepared for the environment, the environment will shake your confidence."

That's why one of Temple's first stops in South Bend will be a trip to Notre Dame Stadium on Friday. Rhule wants his team to get acclimated and visualize where they'll be Saturday.

Temple isn't completely foreign to playing in a packed stadium. The program has made frequent trips to State College and has hosted Penn State at Lincoln Financial Field on two occasions, most recently in 2011.

And while they're still at home, signs featuring the ND wordmark, the Fighting Irishman logo, Nix ripping off a quarterback's head and some other motivational images have decorated the Owls' practice facility.

There's no way around it, and Rhule wants his players to know it. Temple is playing Notre Dame. A win, offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield told a reporter last week, "would change everything" with regards to how the nation looks at Temple football.

Rhule may be nervous, but he won't be scared.

"This why you play the game," he said. "For these kinds of moments. I have promised my players: I will not be tight. I refuse to be tight. Our coaches will not be tight.

"The great football teams I've been around, they play loose and they play confidently, because in their heart, they believe they're going to win.

"We're trying to get that kind of juice in the program. ... The hope is that that will be this Saturday. They'll get in that environment, and where other people might be tight, other people might be tense up or not have the poise to play their game, I'm hoping our guys will play their game, and see where it gets them, see where they end up."

In most cases, when Temple's taken on Top 25 opponents, it hasn't ended well. Since 1974, the Owls have played 77 games against ranked opponents, and they've one just twice. Both wins came on the road, against No. 16 Pittsburgh in 1987 and No. 14 Virginia Tech in 1998.

Against No. 19 Rutgers and No. 12 Louisville last year, Temple lost by a combined score of 80-27.

But it's a new season, with a new coach, a new quarterback and a new offense.

The only ones who really think they can win are probably themselves. As Gene Hackman once put it, that should make them all very dangerous people.

"We're going to have to do this every week: Rally around each other and play together," Rhule said. "One thing about me, I really enjoy these seniors. They've been through a lot and we've been through a lot. And the ones that are going to be out there on Saturday, some of them have overcome some adversity and fought some odds to get there.

"I couldn't be prouder to lead them out there and watch them go play, because I've watched them grow up since they were high school seniors.

"I got up in front of the team today and I quoted Bill Parcells. 'This is why you work all offseason, and this is why you lift all those damn weights.'"