In the often tortured history of Temple football, there have been many mind-numbing, inexplicable losses that Owls’ fans can recite as quickly as they would the names of their children.
Twice this year, in fact, Temple let apparent victory slip away by failing to make fourth-down stops that would have clinched victories against Fordham and Rutgers in what turned into heart-wrenching defeats.
But Saturday’s 39-36 setback against No. 15 Central Florida stunned even the most hardened Owls supporter as the Knights (8-1 overall, 5-0 American Athletic Conference) scored 10 points in the last 1:06 to avoid what would have been the first win over a ranked opponent in 15 years for the Owls (1-9, 0-6).
“It’s just a shame how that game ended,” said first-year head coach Matt Rhule. “The two-minute defense has been a struggle all year long.
“We’re never going to win those games until all 11 guys (on defense) are doing what they’re supposed to do, and we just have to keep recruiting defensive playmakers so we can play at a higher level.”
Blossoming Owls freshman quarterback P.J. Walker bought time to find tight end Chris Parthemore for the go-ahead 7-yard score with 2:04 to play, then the pair added the two-point conversion for a 36-29 lead.
But the Temple defense collapsed in the clutch again, allowing Central Florida to drive 70 yards in under a minute with J.J. Worton (10 catches, 179 yards, three touchdowns) making an acrobatic 30-yard TD catch to tie the game.
When the Owls went three-and-out and punted away to Central Florida, which took over at its own 30 with 19 seconds remaining, the game appeared headed to overtime. But the Knights had different ideas as Blake Bortles hit Rannell Hill for 64 yards after cornerback Anthony Robey tried to jump the route and got beat deep.
Robey dragged Hill down to save the touchdown, but the Knights spiked the ball with two seconds left and Shawn Moffitt came on to kick the game-winning 23-yard field goal to stun the home crowd as time expired.
“Stupidity on my part,” said Robey. “I’ve got to be smarter than that. … I’ve got to be smarter than that. I broke on the first move he gave me and should have known he was going deep in that situation. I knew the play, it was totally my fault.
“It’s something that’s going to stick with me for the rest of my career. We had them beat. We just have to finish.”
The Owls wasted another splendid performance by Walker, who completed 26-of-44 passes for 382 yards and four touchdowns and also ran for 41 yards and a score. Once again, sophomore receiver Robby Anderson was the prime recipient of Walker’s passes, catching eight balls for 184 yards and two scores.
“This is by far the toughest (loss)," said Walker. "We were playing a ranked team and we thought we were better than them. It’s just another game where we came up short.”
Walker’s signature moment came in the third quarter. He rolled left, slowed to set himself then lofted a perfect pass just over the UCF defense to Anderson, who took it home for a 75-yard score, capping a five-play, 99-yard drive that started when the Knights threw incomplete on fourth-and-goal from the 1 holding a 22-21 lead.
“It was pretty much a two-read concept, I had Aldy (Ryan Alderman) running in the flat and Robby on the deep out, and once the corner bit down, the safety was inside of him and I just had to put the ball to the sideline and let him make a play,” said Walker.
But after the Owls’ defense held twice, the Knights put together an 84-yard drive that culminated in a 38-yard touchdown pass to Worton with 6:37 to play to take a 29-28 lead.
Walker was 18-for-24 for 240 yards and two touchdowns in the first half and also ran for 29 yards.
He adeptly avoided a rush, stepped forward as if he was going to run, then floated a perfect 32-yard TD strike to running back Jamie Gilmore for an early lead.
Walker then hit new favorite target Anderson for a 30-yard score with the sophomore receiver catching a short pass, spinning past the defender and walking a tight rope down the sideline for a 21-19 lead right before the half.
Unfortunately for the Owls, they couldn’t get off the field on three third downs to give their offense the ball back and Moffitt drilled a 35-yard field goal on the final play of the half to send his team into the locker room clinging to a 22-21 lead.
“Over the years, this is my 37th, I don’t blame the players,” said defensive coordinator Phil Snow. “We’re a reflection of them and we’ve got to get them to perform better. The end of the first half, the end of games, when the pressure hits us, we’re not doing things right. We’ve got to get that changed.
“Coaches, players, it’s all of us and we’ve got to get that fixed.”
Storm Johnson had 114 first-half rushing yards for the Knights, but 73 came on one run. Anderson had six receptions for 109 yards in the first two quarters for the Owls.
Temple received the opening kickoff and Anderson caught four straight passes from Walker but the drive stalled because of a holding penalty on guard Pete White. Paul Layton pinned the Knights at the 2 with a punt, but for the first of many times Central Florida converted a third down, this time when Bortles scrambled and flipped field position.
Caleb Houston pinned the Owls at the 1 with a punt and on the Owls’ second play, Zaire Williams was tackled in the end zone for a safety. UCF pushed the lead to 5-0 after a Moffitt field goal following the Owls’ punt after the safety.
But Walker’s scoring pass to Gilmore put the Owls up 7-5 and was the first of six lead changes before halftime.
There would be four more in the second half, none more stunning the last one.
“It’s frustrating, but there’s nothing you can do, you just have to keep giving your all and hope for better results,” said Anderson. “We had that game. We just have to finish. That’s been our problem the entire season.”