EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – Coach Steve Addazio keeps reminding everyone that Temple’s return engagement with the Big East will have peaks and valleys.
So far, however, the arrow has only pointed up.
The Owls earned their second straight Big East win – a first in school history – on Saturday at Rentschler Field, willing their way past UConn, 17-14, in overtime.
All-American candidate Brandon McManus split the uprights with a 29-yard field goal in the first extra session as Addazio’s team improved to 3-2, 2-0 in Big East play.
-- To beat the Huskies, Temple quarterback Chris Coyer needed to throw for 69 yards on the game-tying drive in the last two minutes of regulation. Before that drive, he had compiled 63 yards passing on the day.
-- To beat the Huskies, junior wide receiver Deon Miller had to block a field goal just before the late TD drive. Miller also made a critical 33-yard catch on the game-tying drive. UConn kicker Chad Christen missed four field goals on the afternoon, including a 28-yarder on the first possession of overtime.
-- To beat the Huskies, running back Montel Harris had to carry the ball 30 times for 142 yards, overcoming a first half fumble and getting stuffed four times on 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1 rushing attempts inside the UConn 40 in the fourth quarter. Harris also handled punt return duties in the absence of injured backfield mate Matt Brown.
-- To beat the Huskies, the Temple defense had to shrug off a disastrous first quarter in which UConn QB Chandler Whitmer completed 8 of 10 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns. From that point forward, Whitmer was 14 for 29 for 134 yards, and was sacked six times.
-- To beat the Huskies, true freshman linebacker Tyler Matakevich needed to record 19 tackles, and fellow linebacker Nate Smith needed 14 tackles. And it helped that top UConn rusher Lyle McCombs missed the game with a wrist injury.
-- To beat the Huskies, the Owls needed to replace Brown, and they needed freshman Kyle Friend to step in for injured center Sean Boyle in overtime, and they needed cornerbacks Abdul Smith and Zamel Johnson to finish the job after top cornerback Anthony Robey was injured on the last series in regulation.
To win the game on Addazio’s return trip to his home state, facing his football mentor in UConn Coach Paul Pasqualoni, the Owls needed all that and more.
And like they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
For all that effort, however, Temple still appeared headed for a loss before Coyer hit Jalen Fitzpatrick with a 14-yard TD pass with 19 seconds to go. Fitzpatrick ran a corner route and escaped man coverage from UConn’s Taylor Mack, then caught the ball and tapped one foot inbounds to stun the remaining fans at the three-quarters-empty stadium.
The play was reviewed by the instant replay official, but unlike Temple’s last trip to UConn, when a last-second replay decision went against the Owls, this time the official made the right call.
Addazio said afterward that he strongly considered going for a two-point conversion to try to win the game right there. But after consulting with his staff, he opted to kick the extra point.
Considering how the Temple defense had dominated the last three quarters of play, it was the right move.
The first possession of overtime actually gave UConn its first chance to run a play inside the Temple red zone since the first quarter. The Huskies picked up one first down, then got stuffed on a run and completed a short pass. Whitmer rolled away from pressure and threw incomplete on third down, which sent Christen onto the field for his fourth miss. He came into the game having converted 7 of 10 field goal attempts this season.
The Owls set it up for McManus with three runs by Harris, before Coyer shuffled to his left and took a knee to position the ball in the middle of the field. On 3rd-and-9 at the 12, McManus trotted on the field and nailed the fourth game-winning field goal of his college career (in four attempts), and was immediately mobbed by his teammates.
The Owls weren’t celebrating at the start, as the offense stumbled badly and the defense looked absolutely clueless against UConn’s passing game.
Coming into the game, the Huskies had no less than seven receivers on their roster with at least 10 catches this season. Temple had nobody with 10 catches.
Even so, UConn was more of a run-first offense behind McCombs, who had carried the ball at least 20 times in each of his first five games. He was suspended for the first quarter of last week’s loss to Rutgers, and left the game with a wrist injury. But there was no advanced word that he would be absent against the Owls, who game-planned for a run-oriented attack.
Addazio admitted afterward that his defense was outfoxed at the start.
Against a two-deep zone, Whitmer wreaked havoc throwing the ball right down the seam. The Owls mostly rushed four in the first quarter, and barely pressured the sophomore signal caller.
Tight end Ryan Griffin slipped through the middle and caught a 42-yard touchdown pass with five seconds left in the first quarter, and the Owls fell into a 14-0 hole.
In the second quarter, Temple adjusted its coverage, playing more man on the perimeter and dropping the linebackers a little deeper. Smith replaced Johnson at cornerback and the Huskies never again moved past the Temple 40 before halftime.
For all of its early success throwing the ball, UConn never established a running game. That allowed the Owls to put more and more pressure on Whitmer, and eventually they got to him, repeatedly.
Still, the Temple offense was stuck in neutral.
The Owls went three-and-out on three of their first four drives. Then, suddenly, things changed midway through the second quarter, as Harris made a beautiful cut and raced for a 33-yard gain, and moments later cut between two tacklers and ran for a 24-yard score.
Temple was in position to score again before halftime, but Harris was stripped of the ball at the UConn 25.
Addazio has warned about those kinds of ups and downs all season.
Certainly, for the Owls, every game has had its share of peaks and valleys.
But, so far in Big East play, they’ve been on top of the world.