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Early turnovers hurt Temple in 38-13 loss at UCF

The Owls have lost four in a row and are 1-5 overall and in the AAC.

Temple quarterback Re-al Mitchell got his first start on Saturday.
Temple quarterback Re-al Mitchell got his first start on Saturday.Read moreMatthew Hinton / AP

Central Florida entered Saturday’s game with Temple ninth in the country in scoring, averaging 45 points per game. So the Knights don’t need a lot of help in putting points on the board.

That said, Temple provided assistance.

With turnovers in its first two series that led to UCF touchdowns, Temple got off on the wrong foot, and never recovered for a 38-13 loss to UCF in an American Athletic Conference game in Orlando.

The Owls have lost four in a row and are 1-5 overall and in the AAC. UCF is 5-2, 4-2.

“The whole ball game boiled down to the beginning,” coach Rod Carey said in his post-game Zoom interview. “Two turnovers in the first two drives and dug ourselves a hole that we didn’t have the firepower to get out of.”

Temple starting quarterback Anthony Russo missed his third straight game. While Russo missed the previous two games with a shoulder injury, he was among four players from Temple’s two-deep added to the COVID-19 Protocol list. The others were long snapper Travis Malinowski, and offensive linemen Griffin Sestili and Victor Stoffel.

In addition, quarterback Trad Beatty, long snapper Ron Gaines, receivers Randle Jones and Ronnie Stevenson, and offensive lineman Michael Niese played last week but not in this game due to injury.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Re-al Mitchell, the transfer from Iowa State who played extensively the last two games, earned his first start.

Mitchell had told the media that Russo practiced Tuesday, but that was not the case. Carey said after the game that he knew Monday evening Russo wouldn’t be available and he was out from then. Carey did say Russo’s shoulder was fine.

On the first series, Mitchell allowed linebacker Eriq Gilyard to steal the ball on a blitz. It was ruled a fumble, but it never hit the ground. It was simply stolen.

Taking over on the Temple 16, UCF would score two minutes into the game on Greg McCrae’s 7-yard scoring run on a fourth-and-1 play.

Mitchell then threw an interception on the next series when linebacker Tatum Bethune jumped a wide receiver screen for Jadan Blue. That gave UCF the ball on the Temple 27, and three plays later Otis Anderson, an outside threat, bulled up the middle, breaking tackles enroute to a 14-yard scoring run.

“Turning the ball over is unacceptable,” Carey said. “I don’t care if you’re a true freshman or a fifth-year senior, it’s unacceptable. We’ve got to have more ball security, the urgency I didn’t think he (Mitchell) played with early.”

Carey said that Mitchell showed more urgency after that. Of course, it was too late because the game’s tone had been set.

Mitchell completed 10 of 23 for 107 yards and two interceptions. A dual threat, he rushed 10 times for just 11 yards, often chased down by the fast defense.

During the game, Mitchell took some tough hits and said that was a factor in why he didn’t have a major impact as a runner.

“I was kind of nicked up so I wasn’t really able to really go on like I’d want to, but they’re a good defense and credit them a lot,” Mitchell said.

McCrae ended UCF’s third possession with a 1-yard scoring run, extending the lead to 21-0 with 6 minutes, 51 seconds left in the first quarter.

The Owls made it 21-3 on Rory Bell’s 30-yard field goal early in the second quarter. It came one play after Temple, on a 3rd-and-12 on the 14, ran Tayvon Ruley up the middle for just one yard. UCF was playing as many as nine in the box to stop the Temple run and daring Mitchell to pass. That third-down call played into UCF’s hands.

Temple’s defense forced the Knights to punt on their next three series. Then UCF missed a 45-yard field goal attempt, and on its final possession of the half, took over with just 38 seconds, and ran the clock out.

The Temple defense was pressuring quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who entered the game as the Football Bowl Subdivision leader in passing yards per game (417).

This was Temple’s fourth straight loss, and a common occurrence was that the Owls ran out of gas in each game. That certainly happened in the second half.

The Knights started the second half the way the did the game, by scoring on their first possession. Temple continued to have special teams trouble when UCF’s Ryan O’Keefe returned the second-half kickoff 52 yards to the Temple 45.

UCF would eventually score on Gabriel’s 23-yard scoring strike to Marlon Williams, who ran by linebacker Will Kwenkeu, which was not the matchup Temple wanted. A field goal and then another scoring pass to Williams boosted the lead to 38-3 with 3:59 left in the third quarter.

After that series, true freshman Matt Duncan saw his first action at quarterback for the Owls. Mitchell returned for the next series after Amir Tyler recovered a fumble on the UCF 12. The Owls would score on the drive on Onasis Neely’s 5-yard run early in the fourth quarter, making it 38-10.

Gabriel didn’t have a big statistical night - for him, but the Knights still won going away. The sophomore completed 12 of 22 for 268 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

That was the difference as UCF scored 21 points off the three Temple turnovers. Temple’s late touchdown also came on UCF’s lone turnover.

The Owls have lost their last four by an average of 24 points. They will host East Carolina University (1-6, 1-5) on Saturday, a game that this season can certainly not be taken for granted.