The first two weeks of the season has been an uneven trip for the Temple football team, getting behind early, coming back late, and leaving plenty of suspense for the very end.
Forget that the Owls were a double-digit favorite heading into Saturday’s 39-37 American Athletic Conference victory over South Florida at Lincoln Financial Field.
Temple was happy to escape with a W in a game in which the Owls trailed by 11 late in the third quarter, stormed all the way back, and held on for dear life at the end.
Only families of the players and coaches were able to attend the game, and they got their money’s worth.
For the second week in a row, a botched two-point conversion attempt was the difference. In last week’s 31-29 loss at Navy, Temple failed to tie the score on an incomplete two-point conversion pass with 1 minute, 2 seconds left.
This time, USF, after scoring on a 1-yard run by Leonard Parker with 1:03 left to get to within 39-37, had to go for two points. The Bulls brought in running quarterback Noah Johnson, kind of giving away what they were going to do.
“When we saw him in there we knew it would be a QB draw or a reverse or trick play,” Temple senior Amir Tyler said. “Everybody executed what they had to do.”
That was led by Tyler, who made the tackle as Johnson rolled out to his left.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Bulls (1-4, 0-3 AAC) were near the top of the AAC, and they may be in the future. But this isn’t the year for them.
Temple (1-1, 1-1) had to win, especially with a challenging upcoming schedule that begins with Saturday’s game at defending AAC champ Memphis.
Even in scoring 39 points, the Temple offense was inconsistent, and hurt by two interceptions.
Against a USF team that was averaging 14.5 points per game, there is still plenty of work to do.
“We are thrilled with the win,” Temple coach Rod Carey said. “Winning is hard, period.”
Make that double period.
The Bulls extended their lead to 31-20 on Jarred Sackett’s 29-yard field goal with 3:16 left in the third quarter. That is when Temple realized the Bulls weren’t playing like one of the lower-rated teams in the AAC.
Temple promptly scored 19 unanswered points, beginning with Anthony Russo’s 12-yard scoring pass to Branden Mack. A three-year starter, it may have been one of Russo’s best throws at Temple.
USF’s Daquan Evans was right on Mack, but Russo laid it in the end zone in a spot that only his receiver could make the catch.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Owls went up, 32-31, when redshirt junior defensive end Arnold Ebiketie scooped up a fumble and scored in stride from 11 yards out.
It was part of a monster day for the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Ebiketie, who had 3½ tackles for loss, including a sack, among his six tackles. He also forced a fumble.
“We were just out there trying to execute, and I was trying to do my job at a high level.” Ebiketie said.
Temple failed on the two-point conversion but scored what would be the winning touchdown on Russo’s 13-yard wide receiver screen to Randle Jones, making it 39-31 with 4:28 left.
Following USF’s touchdown and missed two-point conversion, Temple’s George Reid recovered the Bulls’ onside kick, and the Owls could finally exhale.
Reid, a redshirt junior from Abington, took advantage of extra playing time at linebacker after Isaiah Graham-Mobley twisted his ankle in warmups. Graham-Mobley, among the best linebackers in the AAC, played a little but eventually had to sit.
With six tackles, including two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery, it was Reid’s best game as an Owl.
“It is always the next-man-up mentality in the [linebackers] room, and when he went down, I was just ready to go in and make a good effort in the game," Reid said.
This week, the Owls may work extra on pass defense, not to mention special teams. It was another rough day, with one blocked field goal, two USF kickoff returns of 35 and 44 yards, and USF recovering a first-half onside kick.
After seeing only two pass attempts by Navy, Temple watched the Bulls’ Jordan McCloud throw 26 passes for 182 yards and three touchdowns. The first two scores were to wide-open receivers, while the third was by Johnny Ford in the back of the end zone.
Jadan Blue led the way for the Owls with nine receptions for 60 yards and two touchdowns -- a 5-yard flip pass that was more like a run and a 13-yard reception. The Owls had six players catch at least three passes.
Russo completed 30 of 42 passes for 270 yards, four touchdowns, and two interceptions. He was not sacked.
“In the second half, we did a great job of turning up the energy, and fighting and fighting and fighting,” Russo said.