Matt Rhule never had this game circled on the calendar inside his office at Temple’s football practice facility.
But now that his Temple Owls’ showdown with his alma mater — Penn State — is nearly upon him, Rhule can’t deny his excitement level is on the rise. Penn State hosts Temple at Beaver Stadium at noon on Saturday, when both teams have a chance to become bowl eligible with a win.
“It’s exciting,” Rhule said on a teleconference with reporters Monday. “I spent a lot of my life there. I spent a lot of my time there. There are certainly a lot of great people there that I’m excited to see and be a part of. So from a personal standpoint, those things are nice for me. And then more importantly, I think it’s a great opportunity for our kids to go there and play against a really good football team.”
Rhule used to be a part of that team.
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A former linebacker more known for providing depth, Rhule played for Joe Paterno from 1994-97 and earned a letter in his final year with the team. Rhule also played for State College High School and walked onto the Nittany Lion team.
While he spent more time on the Penn State sideline than on the field, Rhule’s unique perspective on game days eventually led him to pursue coaching. He got his start coaching linebackers at Albright College before moving on to stints at Buffalo, UCLA, Western Carolina and the New York Giants.
Rhule started at Temple in 2006. He’s coached defensive linemen, quarterbacks, tight ends and served as the Owls’ recruiting coordinator.
Now in his second season as the Owls’ head coach, Rhule is overseeing a squad that has played a remarkably similar brand of football to the Nittany Lions.
Temple has faced offensive inconsistency all season while the Owl defense has mostly kept Temple in games. Temple is averaging just 118 rushing yards per game while Penn State has struggled to run the ball all season. The Nittany Lions are averaging just 86 rushing yards per game.
Meanwhile, Penn State’s defense continues to play lights out — the Nittany Lions were nearly flawless against Indiana and rank third in total defense — while the Owls rank 10th in the country in scoring defense. When Rhule watches film of Penn State’s defense, his eyes are drawn to the middle linebacker spot where Mike Hull has starred for Penn State all season.
“I think he’s tremendously instinctive and I think he plays with a tremendous motor,” Rhule said. “You can tell he’s an emotional leader for them. He’s all over the field. Even if they run a misdirection play he’s going to hustle to the football. He’s a tremendous player who plays at a high level, play in and play out.”
The Owls’ offense could be without its top playmaker. Rhule confirmed that Temple’s leading wide receiver, Jalen Fitzpatrick, will likely be a game-time decision. Fitzpatrick has caught 43 passes for 468 yards and three touchdowns this season.
As for the players who will definitely suit up, Rhule is focused on downplaying the environment they will walk into.
“I think they have to find a way to block the runs and get open versus their coverages and pass-protect and be in the right gap,” Rhule said. “I mean, it’s a football game against a really, really excellent team. If their thoughts are on anything else other than blocking, tackling, catching and running, then they won’t have a chance.”
Rhule knows how intimidating Beaver Stadium can be, especially for young players.
Among his fondest moments while a Nittany Lion, Rhule remembers the 1994 game against Ohio State when the Nittany Lions hammered the Buckeyes 63-14.
“We knew we were going to the Rose Bowl,” Rhule said. “I wasn’t a factor. I wasn’t really playing. But you never forget that day and that energy there was a special day.”
Now the State College native, whose parents still live in Lemont where he visits multiple times a year, has the Owls heading in the right direction. They’ve more than doubled their win total from last season’s 2-8 campaign. He knows a win at his old haunt will go a long way toward building the Owls’ confidence for the remainder of the season.
“Hopefully I’m cool, calm and collected,” Rhule said of his return to Beaver Stadium. “Some of my great memories and happiest times in my life were out there. And while I was by no means a great player, any of the highlights that I had there I had by just doing what I was trained to do and relaxing and having fun and playing the game.”