Coming off a dispirited 38-3 loss at Tulane when the head coach criticized the offensive and defensive lines, Temple came out against No. 18 SMU on fire, with purpose and looked nothing in the first half like a 17½-point underdog.
The Owls were containing one of the best offenses in the country and held a 13-10 lead at intermission.
Even entering the fourth quarter, the game was competitive. But Temple, dogged by injuries and 15 players in COVID-19 protocol, eventually wore down during Saturday’s 47-23 loss to the Mustangs in an American Athletic Conference game at Lincoln Financial Field.
For Temple, (1-4, 1-4) it doesn’t get any easier when, next Saturday, they visit UCF, which is coming off a bye and averaging a robust 45 points per game.
SMU (7-1, 4-1) remains very much in the running for a berth in the AAC championship game, in which the top two of the league’s 11 teams will compete.
Temple only trailed, 20-16, entering the fourth quarter, but it was then that SMU hit the accelerator by scoring on its first four possessions to put away the resilient but banged up Owls.
“When you are down this many guys, you are going to run out of gas. But it doesn’t matter,” Temple coach Rod Carey said. “You are playing the game to win.”
These days, Temple is hoping to have enough players to simply play the game.
Quarterback Anthony Russo missed his second straight game with a shoulder injury. Redshirt sophomores Trad Beatty and Re-al-Mitchell, as they did last week, both saw action in the first half. Beatty, who completed 8-of-12 passes for 129 yards and one touchdown, was hurt late in the half, and Mitchell quarterbacked the entire second half.
All Carey would say about Beatty and receiver Randle Jones, who left the game for good in the first half after taking a big hit, is, “They are out.”
He doesn’t know for how long.
With Beatty hurt, Carey said the Owls dressed Russo at halftime and would have gone to the redshirt senior in an emergency situation.
“We could have handed the ball off with him to operate the offense. That would have been a little better than putting true freshman Matt Duncan out there,” Carey said. “We would not have run him [Russo] or thrown him.”
Carey doesn’t know about Russo’s availability for next week, but there is no doubt Mitchell will get plenty of reps in practice.
Trailing, 26-16, early in the fourth quarter, Temple had a fourth-and-1 from its own 34, and Mitchell, a dual-threat transfer from Iowa State, who rushed for 66 yards on 17 carries, was stopped for no gain by middle linebacker Richard McBryde.
“It was a power type of run, and the ball was in my hands and trying to get that 12 inches. Something like that, and tried my hardest to get there, and it didn’t pan out,” said Mitchell, who completed 9-of-18 passes for 82 yards and a touchdown.
A year ago, SMU quarterback Shane Buechele threw for 457 yards and six touchdowns in a 45-21 win over the Owls.
On Saturday, Buechele looked mortal in the first half, overthrowing a few wide open receivers. He was a different player in the final two quarters. For the game, he threw for 355 yards and four touchdowns.
Both Beatty and Mitchell led the Owls to touchdowns on their first series. Beatty hit Jones with a swing pass that he broke for a 75-yard score on Temple’s first play of the game.
Mitchell led the Owls on an 11-play, 61-yard scoring drive that culminated with Tayvon Ruley’s 3-yard touchdown that gave the Owls a 13-7 lead with 1 minute, 32 seconds left in the first quarter. With 35 seconds left in the game, Mitchell threw his first touchdown pass, 11 yards to tight end Aaron Jarman.
In addition to the injuries, Temple saw leading rusher Re’Mahn Davis quit the team this week and enter the transfer portal. Ruley earned the start, and rushed for 66 yards on 15 carries, showing toughness inside and the ability to get outside.
The Owls as a team showed plenty of fight but couldn’t sustain the effort over four quarters.
“In the past few games we have shown that we can start well in the first quarter,” said linebacker Will Kwenkeu, who had a team-high 10 tackles, including two tackles for loss. “Then, in the second half, we got to make sure that we finish with the same intensity.”