It would be easy for No. 21 Temple to get caught up in the spotlight.
Saturday night marks the biggest moment in TU football history and head coach Matt Rhule knows it.
“We’ve laid a plan out,” Rhule said Tuesday. “We don’t pretend it’s not here. We don’t pretend like we’re not playing Notre Dame.”
The 7-0 Owls will face the 6-1 No. 9 Fighting Irish in front of a sold-out Lincoln Financial Field in primetime. It’s their toughest test of the season.
This is new territory for Temple. It’s the program’s first 7-0 start, and it’s the first time TU’s been ranked in 36 years. Its opponent, however, has been here before. Many times before.
Notre Dame is a storied program with 11 claimed national championships, seven Heisman winners and 17 wins in 34 bowl games. Being ranked No. 9 is nothing new to the Irish.
Two years ago, the Irish were in the national title game. Head coach Brian Kelly has 52 wins in six seasons at Notre Dame. Games like Saturday’s are standard at ND.
So for Temple, a rising program, Saturday night is significant.
“I’m not concerned at all we won’t be ready to play the game,” Rhule said. “I’m not concerned that the moment will be too big. Are we good enough to be able to hang with Notre Dame? That’s the concern.”
The Irish come into Saturday’s meeting averaging over 35 points, 264.3 passing yards and 234.6 rushing yards. Their defense is allowing just 22.6 points per game through seven games.
DeShone Kizer is a dual-threat QB, C.J. Prosise is averaging 7.1 yards per rush, and Roman Catholic product Will Fuller has eight touchdown receptions. The Irish are littered with playmakers.
But Temple is staying focused, as several Owls, including Rhule, said this game isn’t about Notre Dame.
“It will be just like any other game to us,” senior defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis said in contrast to his coach. “And that’s part of making the moment exactly what the moment is.
“You can’t let the moment be too big for you. It was sold out against Penn State and we went out there and played one of our best games. This is just going to be just another game.”
Two years ago — in Rhule’s first game as head coach — Temple went to South Bend for its meeting with the Irish. The Owls lost, 28-6, and went on to a 2-10 season.
Rhule said he believed the ND game was the team’s best that season. That Notre Dame team was a giant. The Irish went 12-0 before getting blown out by Alabama in the title game.
Ioannidis, who had three tackles and one sack against the Irish in 2013, said the Owls can use the film to prepare for Saturday.
“We’re learning from that tape,” he said. “It was only two years ago. They have a lot of the same players. We have a lot of the same players.
“We have to learn from our mistakes from that game. Go back and see what they did because they’re going to run the same things.”
What’s on the tape?
“Smaller mistakes,” he said. “Safeties rotating the wrong way, people being out of their gap. Minor details, but it’s always the minor things that hurt you in the long run.”
Linebacker Tyler Matakevich was a sophomore when Temple lost at South Bend. In the loss, Matakevich had 11 tackles and two tackles for loss.
This season, the senior has 65 tackles, four sacks and four interceptions. Matakevich is one of the team leaders, and is the third player in Temple history to rack up over 400 career tackles.
As the NCAA-leading active tackler, Matakevich has led an Owls defense that has been dominant. In 2013, TU was filled with mostly sophomores and freshmen. This team has grown.
Now, Matakevich said, Temple knows what it means to play Notre Dame.
“I don’t think we knew what we were getting ourselves into,” Matakevich said of the 2013 game against the Irish. “I think now we understand what type of game it is.”
Talking about how good Notre Dame is won’t help Temple, especially given its slow starts against weaker opponents in recent weeks.
Another slow start this week for Temple will result in a one-sided game.
“It’s not that we’re playing Notre Dame,” running back Jahad Thomas said. “We’re going out there and competing against a very great team, but we’re also competing against ourselves.
“We want to go out there and play the best we can — not just this week, the following weeks. It’s not that we get extra excited that we’re playing the Irish.”
Thomas has been a major factor in TU’s 7-0 start. Through eight games, Thomas has 886 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns.
Overall, Thomas has 14 TDs. In Week 2 against Cincinnati, Thomas retuned a kick 100 yards for six points, and against Tulane on Oct. 10 he added a receiving TD.
He’s coming off his worst game of the season, however. In the Owls’ 24-14 win last Thursday night, Thomas racked up only 66 yards on 20 carries, but he did find the end zone twice.
The ECU win was another resilient victory for Temple. While Notre Dame offers Temple a chance to beat a college football powerhouse, Thomas is confident the Owls will be ready to play.
“We know it’s a great opponent ahead of us,” the junior said. “It’s a great opportunity to go out here on Saturday. It’s going to be a hell of a game.
“You know they’re going to play us very tough and we’re going to give them our all. We just have to come out, prepare, do the things that we have been doing.”
*Story originally published on NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com on Oct. 30, 2015.
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