The 2016 Military Bowl on Tuesday started for the Temple football team the way its regular season and American Athletic Conference championship game ended.
It looked like Temple – winners of its last seven games including the AAC title game against Navy in this very stadium - hadn’t skipped a beat despite head coach Matt Rhule departing for the same job at Baylor and several defensive coaches committing to join him.
But after an early score, the Owls stunningly gave up 31 unanswered points in the first half. A second-half comeback fell short because too many drives ended in field goals as the Demon Deacons won the game 34-26.
The first minute was the Owls’ greatest highlight and maybe the coaching turmoil had an effect after all. Cornerback Delvon Randall, who had an interception and a pass breakup, said he didn’t think the preparation was affected by the coaching change.
“It wasn’t challenging, it’s a business at the end of the day,” said Randall. “They turned the program around and got us playing the way we needed to be playing way back when and I’m proud of them. (But leading into the bowl) the practices were the same.”
The Demon Deacons’ tempo, though, was definitely an issue.
“We weren’t expecting them to go that fast, they caught us off guard,” said Randall.
Temple reached the Wake Forest 44 in the final minutes but the final pass of Phillip Walker’s illustrious career ended in an incompletion off a miscommunication on fourth down.
Walker, who dislocated a finger and popped it back into place in the first half, finished 28-of-49 for 396 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Both the scoring passes went to junior Adonis Jennings, who caught seven passes for 154, and Ventell Bryant had 11 catches for 151 yards.
“Phillip came up to me and showed me that his finger went all the way up into his hand, so I asked him what he did to fix it and he showed me that he just pulled it back into place and threw the next ball,” said Temple interim coach Ed Foley. “It was never a question in his mind he would play the rest of the game. He’s one of the toughest players you’ll ever see in your life.”
The Owls’ running game, however, was stagnant. Even taking out Walker’s minus-54 yards mostly on sacks, the Owls gained only 34 yards on the ground and Jahad Thomas was stopped for a loss on third-and-1 before Walker’s final pass.
Aaron Boumerhi kicked four field goals, three in the second half, as the Owls chipped away but needed to convert more in the red zone
The Owls came out ferocious on defense, pressuring Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford, who threw an interception on the third play. After Sean Chandler’s pick, Walker went deep on the next play for a 48-yard touchdown pass to Jennings.
But Wake answered as a blown coverage saw Cam Serigne get wide open behind the defense for a 41-yard score that tied the game at 7. Temple’s next drive was a three-and-out, and Wake responded to take the lead on Tabari Hines’ 20-yard touchdown run.
Then after a defensive stop seemed to give Temple some life, Chandler fumbled a punt on the 11-yard line. The Demon Deacons scored on Cade Carney’s run on the next play to make it 21-7.
They pushed the lead to 31-7 over the stunned Owls and a large contingent of Temple fans who arrived hoping to see a school-record 11th victory and third-ever bowl win – the last coming in the 2011 New Mexico Bowl. Aaron Boumerhi’s 45-yard field goal closed Temple’s deficit to three scores heading into the locker room.
“It’s a four-quarter game, not two,” said offensive lineman Dion Dawkins. “If we did what we did in the second half, it would have been a different game.”
The Owls started the second half as fast as the first, scoring on their first drive again with a long pass to Jennings, who left several Demon Deacons in his wake with some fancy footwork near the sideline for a 58-yard score.
On the Demon Decaons’ next drive, Wolford was tackled awkwardly and left the game with a strained neck and did not return. Thanks to an encroachment penalty on what would have been a third-down stop, Wake Forest continued the drive but an interception of backup QB Kyle Kearns in the end zone by Randall flipped the momentum.
Temple drove to the Wake 4-yard-line but had to settle for a 24-yard -field goal that made it 31-20. Boumerhi added kicks of 32 and 38 yards as the Owls came up empty in the red zone on two more occasions. After Boumerhi's last field goal with 3:39 to play, Temple allowed a 60-yard kickoff return that set up Mike Weaver's field goal with 1:57 to play.
It was a second straight 10-win season for the Owls, but it also ended with a demoralizing loss in a bowl game. Temple was blown out of last season’s Boca Raton Bowl by Toledo.
“It wasn’t meant to be for us, but I know these guys will get it eventually,” said Dawkins.
Last year the bowl loss knocked out the Owls out of the final national rankings and this year’s defeat will likely do the same for the No. 23/24 team in the country.
It also means a stellar senior class led by four-year starting quarterback Walker will have a legacy which includes 20 wins over the last two years, two bowl games and a conference championship after a 2-10 season in 2013 but no bowl wins.
“It pains me now like I can’t describe,” said Foley. “I know once it settles in it will only get worse. It is really disappointing to me knowing how close we came in this game.”