FOXBORO, Mass. – The 2015 Temple football team has more talent, more experience, and more playmakers – on both sides of the football – than any team in recent school history.
But that’s not what made the difference in Saturday’s stunning, 25-23 victory over UMass at Gillette Stadium.
The Owls showed maturity beyond their years – which is different (and more valuable) than experience – in pulling out the last-minute win.
Because experience isn’t enough when you surrender a go-ahead touchdown with 80 seconds to go ... and your offense hasn’t scored a touchdown since early in the second quarter ... and your quarterback hasn’t completed a pass to a wide receiver since midway through the third quarter ... and your number one tailback just fumbled away a chance to seal the victory, for the second week in a row.
All those things burdened the Owls after UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel snuck a screen pass under the Temple defense, and Jamal Wilson dashed between three would-be tacklers for a 16-yard touchdown that gave the Minutemen a 23-20 lead with 1:20 to go.
At that moment, Temple placekicker Austin Jones didn’t figure to have a role in the game’s ultimate outcome. The extra point would make it a four-point deficit.
But that’s exactly when the Owls showed their maturity – to forget what just happened and play the next play, whether it’s on offense, defense, or special teams.
In exact order, the initial heroes of Temple’s unlikely victory were 1) Praise Martin-Oguike, who blocked Blake Lucas’s extra point attempt, 2) Stephaun Marshall, who scooped up the ball and ran a few yards before handing it to 3) Will Hayes, who raced down the sideline for a defensive two-point conversion that cut the deficit to 23-22.
Suddenly Jones could potentially have a huge impact on the outcome.
But that couldn’t happen unless Temple quarterback P.J. Walker could shake off an up-and-down outing that had produced big passing numbers, but very few points.
The Owls came out throwing against the Minuteman – 22 times on their first 32 plays. Walker had 252 yards passing at halftime, but he also threw two interceptions. And his production slipped drastically in the second half – with 89 yards passing going into that last drive, not to mention he was sacked twice, and had five other second-half carries that netted zero yards.
“The first pick was a great play by the defender, but it was also my fault for not throwing it beyond his reach,” Walker explained afterward. “The second pick was a bad read by me. I thought [the defender] was farther off.”
That second interception came on a quick out in UMass territory as the Owls were running a two-minute drill late in the second quarter. The Minutemen converted the turnover into a game-tying touchdown just before halftime.
But the experience proved valuable for Walker’s next attempt at a two-minute drill – with the game on the line.
“I got another chance,” he said.
In exact order, the heroes of Temple’s game-winning drive were Ventell Bryant, Jahad Thomas, John Christopher, and Adonis Jennings, who each caught passes to move the Owls into field goal range.
“Spreading the wealth,” said Walker, who completed passes to eight different receivers in the contest.
Not to mention the offensive line.
After missing a potential touchdown throw to Jennings, Walker hit Bryant for a short gain, and the Owls burned their last timeout with 18 seconds to go. They could have attempted the field goal right there, as the ball was spotted right in the middle of the field at the 27-yard line.
But Coach Matt Rhule said he wanted to get a little bit closer.
And that’s where the team’s maturity mattered most. Because they wanted to get closer, but they also couldn’t afford a sack, or to have the receiver get tackled inbounds – and it was already third down so they weren’t going to be able to spike the ball to stop the clock, unless they picked up the first down.
“J.C. was my first read,” said Walker, referring to Christopher, who ran a quick out.
This time, Walker’s throw was perfect, and Christopher caught the ball and raced out-of-bounds for a 12-yard gain, setting up the game-winning kick.
In exact order, the final heroes of Temple’s victory were snapper Corey Lerch, holder Tom Bradway, and Jones, who nailed the decisive field goal.
From beginning to end, just when it looked like their win streak was coming to an end, the Owls demonstrated an uncommon level of maturity on offense, defense, and special teams.
It’s no wonder they are 3-0 for only the third time in the past 36 years.