Temple Notes: Rhule confident in young defense


Temple Notes: Rhule confident in young defense

Despite Temple’s struggles on defense last season, head coach Matt Rhule is not shy to say it will be a much-improved part of the 2014 team.

“When we were rolling here, we built it around the defense,” Rhule said Monday on ESPN’s telecast of the American Athletic Conference media day in Newport, R.I. “I think we’re moving back towards that with the way some of [the guys] are developing themselves, some of the guys we’ve brought in in the secondary and our pass rush.”

The Owls allowed 476.5 yards per game on defense last season, but Rhule noted Temple allowed less than 250 yards per game in each of the final two games. On top of building on the late-season surge, the defense is now a year older and the coaching staff has had a full year to scout the opposing American offenses.

He believes the turnaround and improvement of young defensive players has hinged on trust. Additionally, the shared experience of losing 10 games a season ago has helped to bring the team together.

“It really started last year just getting them to trust us and trust in the process,” Rhule said. “I think what last year did was it really brought us together as a program.

“I was the third head coach in four years. As a young person, I don’t care how much you may want to trust somebody, that’s hard. I think what we did last year, what we went through last year, we stayed together. We never fractured, and now we’re moving forward as one program.

“Those young guys, they’ve been through some wars now. I think that they really trust what the coaches are telling them, we really trust them, and we’re going to move forward together.”

Matakevich solidifying Owls' D
Whatever success the Owls' defense has in 2014 will likely hinge on the play of Tyler Matakevich.

Matakevich anchored the Owls’ defense last season, leading the nation with 99 solo tackles and earning first team All-Conference honors from the American. He recorded 137 total tackles and 11.5 tackles for a loss from the linebacker position.

He was only a sophomore.

“He’s done it in all situations against all opponents and he’s played at a really, really high level,” Rhule said.

Now in his junior season, Matakevich is poised to do his part in improving the 29.8 points Temple allowed per game last year. Matakevich finds himself on the Bednarik Award (nation’s top linebacker) preseason watch list, but like his teammate P.J. Walker, he would pass up the individual accolades in exchange for team victories (see story).

Rhule said the 6-foot-1 Stratford, Conn. native has bulked up to 238 pounds and is “in the best shape of his life.”

Battle in the backfield
Temple returns its three top running backs in Kenneth Harper, Zaire Williams and Jamie Gilmore. The senior Harper heads into 2014 as the clear-cut No. 1 back after tallying 646 yards and nine touchdowns on 136 carries.

But will Williams or Gilmore see the bulk of the carries behind Harper?

As a freshman last season, Williams was second on the team in rushing, amassing 556 yards and three touchdowns on 101 carries. Gilmore gained 195 yards last year as a sophomore, and showed the kind of explosion he can provide, rushing for 92 yards on 16 carries against Memphis.

“We’ve got our thunder back with Kenny, but we’ve got to find our lightning to go along with him,” Rhule said.

After beating Ohio State, Penn State ranked for 1st time since 2011

After beating Ohio State, Penn State ranked for 1st time since 2011

After its signature win over Ohio State on Saturday night, Penn State finds itself ranked for the first time since 2011.

The Nittany Lions (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) are ranked No. 24 in the latest AP poll. The Lions stunned the Buckeyes, 24-21, on Saturday in a White Out at Beaver Stadium (see game story).

With the loss, Ohio State drops from No. 2 in the country to No. 6 (see full poll).

While head coach James Franklin sidestepped the signature win question after the game (see story), there is no question the Ohio State win is one that has been lacking in the Franklin era at State College. Even junior cornerback Grant Haley, who scored the go-ahead, 60-yard touchdown off a blocked field goal in the fourth quarter, believes it was much-needed too.

“It’s just a game that put Penn State back on the map," Haley said. "We needed that signature win, and we did it tonight."

Penn State heads to Purdue next Saturday for a noon kickoff against the Boilermakers.

Penn State's signature win over Ohio State has it feeling it's back on map

Penn State's signature win over Ohio State has it feeling it's back on map

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – In another day and time, the late John Facenda — the voice of NFL Films and the very “Voice of God,” as he came to be known — described Marcus Allen “running with the night” while scoring a particularly memorable touchdown for the Raiders in a Super Bowl victory over Washington.

On Saturday, another Marcus Allen went soaring into the night, not to mention Penn State lore.

A blocked field goal by the Nittany Lions’ junior safety resulted in a go-ahead 60-yard TD return by teammate Grant Haley, as PSU upset No. 2 Ohio State in Beaver Stadium, 24-21 (see story). That led to the team’s fans, dressed appropriately for a White Out, to storm the field, and led to the kind of emotions that hadn’t been felt on campus in a long, long time.

“This is for everybody,” coach James Franklin said.

The Langhorne native talked about the game being “a big step in the right direction” as far as healing a community wounded by the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal. He talked, with tears in his eyes, about the death of his brother-in-law four days earlier.

Yet he didn’t wish to discuss whether it was the kind of signature victory he needed to propel the program back toward prominence (or, for that matter, ensure his job security).

“That’s for you (media) guys, all that signature stuff,” he said, adding that he “didn’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the big picture.”

Rather, he said, “I just want to enjoy tonight.”

Understandable, since the Lions, 5-2 after their third straight victory this season, beat a ranked team for the first time since 2013 (No. 14 Wisconsin), beat a team ranked in the top five for the first time since 1999 (No. 4 Arizona) and earned a victory over their highest-ranked opponent since knocking off No. 1 Notre Dame in 1990.

PSU also snapped a 20-game road winning streak on the part of the Buckeyes (7-1). Seventeen of those victories had come in Big Ten play.

Few people saw it coming, though middle linebacker Jason Cabinda said that amid a sleepless Friday night at the team hotel, he and his roommate, fellow ‘backer Manny Bowen, allowed themselves to dream.

“We were just talking about how great it would be to pull this off,” he said, “and how we believed we could pull this off, and how it would be like writing history.”

It was already etched upon the pages of Brandon Bell’s mind.

“This was no fluke,” the senior linebacker said. “This is what we train for. This is what we go out there and play for. Obviously everybody is (saying) we shocked the world, but this is what you expect. Or what I expect.”

Bell, playing for the first time since the season’s second week because of a leg injury, had a career-high 19 tackles and one of his team’s six sacks. Cabinda, playing for the first time since the opener because of a hand injury, had 12 tackles and a sack of his own. Bowen added 11 stops, and defensive end Garrett Sickels, suspended for the first half for violating a team rule, had career highs of nine tackles, 3½ tackles for loss and 2½ sacks.

“Maybe,” Franklin said, “I should suspend him for the first half for the season.”

With Cabinda and Bell back, the Lions were more aggressive on defense than they had been, more varied. Yet the game seemed to be getting away from them when Ohio State built a 21-7 lead through three quarters.

J.T. Barrett, the Buckeyes’ splendid quarterback, had thrown for one touchdown, Curtis Samuel had busted off a 71-yard run for another and PSU’s repeated special-teams blunders (a blocked field goal, a fumbled punt and a bad snap on a punt) had left the Lions staring up at a team that had won its previous 78 games when leading by 14 points or more in the fourth quarter.

OSU had, however, been extended to overtime the previous weekend at Wisconsin, while PSU had a bye, two things that might very well have contributed to all that happened next. You had Lions QB Trace McSorley capping a brisk 90-yard drive with a scoring run early in the final period. And freshman linebacker Cam Brown blocking a punt (even though the block wasn’t on) to set up Tyler Davis’ field goal, cutting the gap to 21-17 with 9:33 left.

Then Allen blocked Tyler Durbin’s 45-yard field goal attempt as well, the first time since 2007 the Lions had rejected two kicks in the same game. Haley collected the rebound and set sail down the left sideline.

Durbin and holder Cameron Johnston gave chase, and Johnston, the punter, closed the gap on Haley, one of the fastest guys on Penn State’s team.

“I told him, ‘If you would have gotten caught by the kicker I never would have let you live that down,’” McSorley said.

Never mind that — Haley admitted he would have never forgiven himself.

He managed to make it the distance, though, and after Ohio State’s final drive ended with a pair of sacks, PSU had the victory.

When the gun sounded several Lions sprinted toward the student section at the south end of the stadium and performed their own version of the Lambeau Leap. And as the fans spilled out onto the field, two male spectators turned to each other high up in the west stands.

“We’re back in business,” one said to the other.

That seemed to be the feeling in the locker room, too.

“It’s just a game that put Penn State back on the map,” Haley said. “We needed that signature win, and we did it tonight.”

All because Marcus Allen soared, and took everyone else along with him.