The Temple University football team got everything it wanted out of this week and Saturday night’s game against an iconic Top-10 program.
Everything except the victory.
The 21st-ranked Owls took a 20-17 lead over ninth-ranked Notre Dame on Austin Jones’ 36-yard field goal with 4:45 to go, but the defense couldn’t come up with the final stop needed to cap the huge upset.
Fighting Irish redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer completed a 45-yard pass to Alize Jones down to the Owls 17, then hit Will Fuller in the corner of the end zone two plays later for the go-ahead score and Notre Dame went on to a 24-20 win.
Cornerback Tavon Young and safety Will Hayes were in coverage, but Kizer dropped a perfect pass over Hayes, who was about a half-second behind the play. The dynamic Fuller was quiet until the final drive and finished with five catches for 46 yards.
“It was just a good play by them,” said Young. “We could have done things better to stop them, but they just made a play.”
As the Owls tried to drive for the winning score, P.J. Walker avoided pressure and threw a bomb downfield to John Christopher, who had slipped behind the defense. But standout Irish defensive back KeiVarae Russell made a diving interception.
“He made a great play and that’s all I can say about it,” said Walker, who was 13-of-30 for 188 yards and a touchdown. “(Christopher) was running by himself and I noticed the corner, but I thought I could squeeze it in. If he didn’t dive for the ball, it would have been a touchdown.”
Temple almost came up with a miracle play to end the game. With seven seconds left and facing fourth down, Kizer scrambled to buy time and Avery Williams knocked the ball out of his hands.
But instead of bouncing to a Temple defensive player, who could have run the fumble in for a score, the ball bounced right back to Kizer, who quickly threw the ball away as time expired.
The Owls came into the game undefeated and ranked in the country for the first time since 1979. ESPN’s GameDay set up shop in Philadelphia and shined the national spotlight on Temple.
“I couldn’t have been prouder of our football team,” said Temple coach Matt Rhule. “I think we proved we’re a good football team, one of the best in the country.
“If they weren’t sure how good they are, now they know. But there’s no moral victories because we’re not here to lose.”
Notre Dame drove 74 yards in 12 plays and scored on the opening drive when Kizer ran it in from four yards. The drive was kept alive by a pass interference call on Young, one of a few dubiuous calls.
“You know, it was a fight for the ball and when the ball is in the air the ref is going to see what they are going to see,” said Young. “I had great coverage and the ref just made a call, so I had to deal with it.”
Temple answered with a 41-yard Jones field goal and P.J. Walker’s 12-yard TD pass to Brandon Shippen midway through the second quarter – a drive that was extended on a questionable interference call on Notre Dame.
Notre Dame came right back with Kizer pulling off a tremendous play fake and running 79 yards for a score and 14-10 lead. The Irish threatened to extend the lead before the half but linebacker Tyler Matakevich notched his fifth interception of the season on a tipped pass.
Kizer ran 17 times for 143 yards and completed 23 of 36 passes for 299 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions – both in the red zone to help the Owls get the game to the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame’s Justin Yoon kicked a 23-yard field goal early in the third quarter to put the Irish up 17-10, but then the Owls started to assert themselves.
Jahad Thomas took a pitch to the right and avoided two defenders on a fourth-and-goal from the 1 to tie the game at 17 with 10:41 to play.
“It was a run-pass option and if the corner came off I would have lobbed it up the receiver, but he stayed on,” said Thomas. “I did what I had to do, put my foot in the ground and scored a touchdown.”
The Owls took the lead on a 36-yard field goal with 4:45 left after Thomas dropped a short pass from Walker that would have extended the drive.
Temple needed just one stop, but couldn’t get it. What it was left with was an inspiring performance in front of a national audience, a week where ESPN’s GameDay heled a three-hour national show in Philadelphia and momentum for the program going forward.
While all that was unforgettable, it was obvious they just wanted the one thing they couldn’t come up with.
“Nobody gave us a chance, but we knew we could win this game and to have the game how we had it and come up short is devastating,” said Matakevich. “They just made one more play than us.”