At 3-0, Temple and coach Golden get true test of progress vs. Penn St., mentor JoePa

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If Penn State is Temple's measuring stick, the Owls have been off by miles.

This Pennsylvania rivalry is decidedly tilted in the Nittany Lions' favor. Temple hasn't beaten Penn State since World War II, and the Owls have a 27-game losing streak in the series. Penn State took an easy 31-6 victory last year — which might be considered progress for coach Al Golden's club.

Yet some fans and prognosticators keep chirping about the Owls' chances this year. Temple is 3-0 for the first time since 1979, and the 23rd-ranked Nittany Lions have a few glaring issues, particularly an inconsistent running attack.

"To me, obviously, it would be significant, but that's a loaded question," Golden said this week during a teleconference when asked what a victory over Penn State would mean. "The bottom line is we're just trying to focus on (practice). We're not going to beat them Saturday if we don't beat them today, that's the reality of it."

Sounds a lot like something Paterno would say.

No wonder, since Golden did learn at the side of his Hall of Fame mentor after playing tight end in Happy Valley from 1987-91, and serving as the linebacker coach and recruiting coordinator in 2000. Golden incorporated a lot of what he learned then into rebuilding once-moribund Temple, singling out Paterno's blueprint of weaving academics with football.

"No matter what, it's about the process, and it's about core values. It's about not compromising your values, your integrity or academics," Golden said. "I hope that's how they look at us now, and obviously, that's how we want to look at our program."

He's doing such a good job that Golden is a hot name on the coaching rumor mill.

Golden is frequently mentioned as a potential candidate to take over at Penn State — whenever the 83-year-old Paterno does decide to retire. Golden has sidestepped questions about the Penn State job, fearing it might add more fodder to Internet message boards.

He may not be available whenever that happens anyway. While he recently signed a five-year extension with the Owls through 2014, Golden has talked in the past to UCLA and Notre Dame, among other schools, about vacancies, only to stay put.

Whatever he does next, Paterno has high praise. The old boss likes his former assistant's football instincts and calls Golden a good evaluator.

"And I think he's developing the Temple program the way he wants it done. Not necessarily just the way (at) Penn State," Paterno said at Beaver Stadium. "Overall, Al may have learned some things from us ... but he's pretty much his own man."

Back when Golden was on the recruiting trail with Paterno, the assistant would often talk about his future. Paterno told Golden to have patience, to not rush into any job that comes open.

After his one-year stint assisting Paterno, Golden moved on to become defensive coordinator at Virginia before getting hired at Temple in 2006. It's been a long, arduous rebuilding project since then — and the Nittany Lions haven't let up.

Penn State won 47-0 in Golden's first year, followed by victories of 31-0, 45-3 and 31-6. Temple has been outgained 903-82 on the ground in those losses.

"The gap is huge, that's the problem," Golden said. "The gap is 154-9, that's the issue. The issue is we've been outgained ... I could go on and on."

Temple might be 3-0, though they needed a field goal with 43 seconds left and a bizarre touchdown on the final play to beat FCS champions Villanova, 31-24 in the season opener. Then the Mid-American Conference favorites needed overtime to beat Central Michigan 13-10 at home.

But there are glimmers of hope the Owls can at least be more competitive in Happy Valley.

A breakthrough 2009 season in which Temple had its first winning record (9-4) since 1990 had fans buzzing. Temple played its first bowl game (a 30-21 loss to UCLA in the EagleBank Bowl) since 1979.

The 30-16 win over Connecticut last week was the team's first over a power conference program since 2004. Tailback Bernard Pierce is averaging 100 yards rushing and getting touted by the school on billboards and bus stop ads around Philadelphia as a Heisman Trophy candidate.

The Nittany Lions so far have been solid against the run, though missed tackles have been problematic at times.

Plus, Penn State has been inconsistent in its own run game. Rob Bolden is off to a promising start at quarterback, though he's still a true freshman.

Top defensive end Adrian Robinson, who forced a fumble and returned it for a touchdown last week against UConn, might be looking to tee off on Penn State's offensive line.

Before Golden arrived, talented skill players like Pierce and Robinson may have been unreachable for Temple. Now Golden says 1,800 high school players attend Temple summer football camp, helping boost the Owls' visibility.

Penn State sophomore receiver Justin Brown, of the Philadelphia suburb of Wilmington, Del., had interest from Temple early in his high school career before he said the Owls dropped out after bigger schools came calling. Brown, though, knows things are changing.

"Temple is a real good football team," he said Wednesday. "They are starting to turn it around."