PHILADELPHIA — When a school’s football tradition is tinderbox-dry, all it takes is a tiny spark of hope to quickly spread into a five-alarm blaze of optimism.
That spark was kindled Sept. 5 at Lincoln Financial Field, where the Temple Owls opened another season of likely-to-be-snuffed dreams against the program’s most persistent tormentors, the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Since beating Penn State 14-0 on Oct. 18, 1941 — that’s 50 days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, for you history buffs — the Owls had gone 0-38-1 against the Lions.
And when the visitors from a place known as Happy Valley jumped out to a 10-0 lead, the mood of the near-sellout crowd of 69,176 — for once, Temple fans seemed to outnumber Penn State fans — again turned somber.
But then a strange and wonderful thing happened for long-suffering Temple fans. The Owls’ defense began making life miserable for star quarterback Christian Hackenberg, a possible future NFL first-round draft pick.
Unheralded junior running back Jahad Thomas took a star turn with 135 yards on 29 carries, scoring two touchdowns — and just like that, 74 years of frustration were forgotten as Temple rolled to a 27-10 upset that rated somewhere very high on a short list of magical moments in school history.
“It’s awesome for our program,” said Temple’s ecstatic coach, Matt Rhule, a former Penn State linebacker. “This is huge for recruiting. I’m getting on the phone tonight and saying, ‘Look at what our kids are doing here.’ ”
Longtime backers of Tulane, which comes into Lincoln Financial Field for an 11 a.m. game Saturday against the undefeated Owls — Temple is 4-0 for the first time since 1974 — can relate.
Temple beating Penn State probably had the same electric feel as Tulane’s 14-0 win over LSU in1973, which snapped a 0-22-2 slide against the Tigers.
Now Temple fans are hoping their team can do what Tulane was able to do in 1998, when the Green Wave caught lightning in a bottle and went 12-0, demonstrating that it is indeed possible for one of college football’s have-nots to bask in the glory that the haves frequently take for granted.
The Owls followed their slapdown of Penn State with a 34-26 road stunner at American Athletic Conference favorite Cincinnati, forcing the favored Bearcats into five turnovers, and enthusiasm reached an early-season fever pitch.
Philadelphia Daily News sports columnist John Smallwood even noted that if the stars align, the Owls — who could be favored in all the rest of their games but one, against Notre Dame on Oct. 31 — could run the table, win in the AAC Championship Game and end up in the running for a College Football Playoff berth.
The enthusiasm is in stark contrast to the skepticism of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bob Ford, who suggested that Temple should’ve looked into dropping football in 2013, when it cut seven non-revenue sports.
Whether Temple football has turned the corner in a meaningful and lasting way is still unclear. The Owls, in their 117th season of college football, would have to string together 18-plus consecutive 13-0 seasons just to get back to .500 overall.
More ominously, Rhule — who received a four-year contract extension this summer — is now regarded as one of the hottest young coaches in the business, and thus a prime candidate to be plucked away by a more prestigious program.
That was the case with his predecessor at Temple, Al Golden, who parlayed a bit of success there into a more prestigious gig with the Miami Hurricanes.
Tulane fans know the drill. Wave coaches Jim Pittman, Larry Smith, Mack Brown and Tommy Bowden, the author of that undefeated season in 1998, all were lured away once they demonstrated they could win at a place where break-even seasons often are reasons to celebrate.
But all that is fodder for future contemplation. For now, Temple is on a run and living large. If it’s a dream, the Owls don’t want to be awakened just yet.