Rhule and Owls ‘scared to death’ of late-season failure

Temple will take one step closer to clinching the American Athletic Conference’s East Division title if it wins Saturday’s game against Tulane.

Redshirt-senior wide receiver Keith Kirkwood scored two touchdowns in the Owls' 38-0 win against Stony Brook University on Sept. 10. He will wear No. 5 during the 2017 season after being recognized as one of the team's toughest players. HOJUN YU FOR THE TEMPLE NEWS

Matt Rhule’s first two seasons as the head coach ended in disappointment.

In 2013, with Phillip Walker starting seven games at quarterback as a freshman, the team finished 2-10. The Owls got off to a 5-3 start in 2014, but went on a three-game losing streak. The team won its final game against Tulane to gain bowl eligibility, but did not receive an invitation to any postseason games.

If his team can win Saturday’s game against Tulane and next week’s game against East Carolina, the Owls will clinch the East Division title for the second straight year and play in the American Athletic Conference championship.

Rhule wants to end the season on a high note, especially for the team’s seniors.

“I wake up scared to death because I don’t want to let them down,” he said. “This is my first recruiting class. …The last thing I want to do is feel like I let them down down the stretch.”

Temple (7-3, 5-1 The American) is on a four-game winning streak and is fresh off its bye week. Rhule said the week off was an opportunity for players to have an “academic boot camp” and rest after 10 straight weeks with a game.

The Owls’ defense will face Tulane’s spread-option offense, which is the same “recipe for disaster” that Army West Point’s triple-option was for the Owls in the season opener. Tulane is in last place in The American’s West Division and has lost five games in a row, but is still one of the top rushing offenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Green Wave’s 236.4 rushing yards per game and 33 minutes of average possession are both in the Top 20 in Division I.

Five different players have more than 150 rushing yards for Tulane, including redshirt-sophomore quarterback Glen Cuiellette. Junior running back Dontrell Hilliard leads the Green Wave’s rushing attack with 737 yards and nine touchdowns.

Temple had trouble with Army’s option in September and Navy’s option in 2014, but Rhule said Tulane’s offense is more like South Florida’s or Central Florida’s than the service academies’.

“The biggest thing to me is the matchup inside. …They’re probably the biggest, most physical, strongest offensive line we faced and we’re built maybe a little bit more on speed than we are on power inside,” Rhule said. “So our inside guys are going to have to come through.”

The interior linemen become more important if redshirt-senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick cannot play. Rhule said he doesn’t think Reddick will play due to an ankle or foot injury. The team would “desperately love” to have Reddick on the field, he said, but he’s confident in others on the defensive line like junior Jacob Martin, senior Averee Robinson and redshirt-senior Praise Martin-Oguike.

He added that he’s not sure if sophomore running back Ryquell Armstead will play. Freshman wide receiver and running back Isaiah Wright and sophomore running back Jager Gardner will receive more carries this week, Rhule said.

Redshirt-junior defensive back Artrel Foster will return to the lineup after missing the game against Connecticut on Nov. 4.

Opponents have scored 30 or more points against Tulane in its last four games. Despite Tulane’s recent struggles, Martin and the Owls aren’t overlooking the Green Wave. Martin doesn’t want to be upset like the three teams in the AP Top four that lost on Nov. 12. Temple is a 15-point favorite in Saturday’s game.

“I think it’s key for us to make sure that we do our job, follow the process that we do week in and week out to make sure that we get things done,” Martin said.

Temple’s historic 10-win season last year ended with losses in the conference championship game and Marmot Boca Raton Bowl. The team wants to finish stronger in the remaining weeks.

“We have to be better than we were last year,” Walker said.

Evan Easterling can be reached at evan.easterling@temple.edu or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.

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