Maybe a testament to the true potential of this Temple football team is that it didn’t play its best game against a nationally ranked opponent and still left the field smiling

The coach said it wasn’t the offense’s best game. So did the quarterback.

The defense?

How could that unit have played better?

Going up against a Maryland team that averaged 71 points in its first two games, Temple made two late red-zone stands in beating the No. 21 Terrapins, 20-17, on a sunny afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field.

“Since I have been starting, definitely No. 1, that is the best I saw us fly around and play as a unit,” linebacker Shaun Bradley said.

He was talking about the entire defense, but Bradley could have been referring to himself. Years from now, he and his teammates will marvel over their late-game heroics.

Temple didn’t care that Maryland was an eight-point favorite and was coming off a 63-20 blitzing of then No. 21 Syracuse.

Just a year ago, the Owls were two-touchdown underdogs and won, 35-14, at Maryland. That turned the season around for what had been an 0-2 team.

This game will just build an ample supply of confidence. The Owls are 2-0, but the opener was a 56-12 laugher over Bucknell. There were some questions whether Temple was ready to face a ranked team after blitzing an overmatched FCS squad.

The answers came swiftly, supplied largely by the Owls defense.

Temple was clinging to a 20-15 lead when Maryland’s DJ Turner returned punt 55 yards to the Owls 4-yard line with 4 minutes and 53 seconds left.

That’s when Bradley, a senior who was a first-team all-American Athletic Conference linebacker last year, went into overdrive.

First down, Maryland’s Anthony McFarland, who rushed for 123 yards and a score, was stopped for a 1-yard loss by Bradley.

On second down, McFarland gained 4 yards to the 1, with Bradley making the tackle. Temple’s hard-hitting safety Benny Walls stopped McFarland for no gain on third down.

Then came fourth down and McFarland would get the call again.

“Our defensive line played excellent today, getting pushback and they created a lane for me,” Bradley said.

And Bradley, a former high school running back, shot the gap so quickly, going in untouched and leveling McFarland for a 3-yard loss.

“It was like a kid with toys on Christmas,” Bradley said.

Except that Maryland was still trying to play Scrooge.

Temple was forced to punt on the next possession. After a shanked 7-yard punt, Maryland had a first-and-goal from the Temple 10 with 3:09 left.

An overthrown incompletion on first down was followed by a McFarland 3-yard gain. Maryland was then penalized 5 yards for a false start. Another overthrown pass on third down made it fourth-and-goal from the 12.

Maryland’s Turner caught the ball, but was way out of bounds in the back of the end zone, with excellent coverage by linebacker Sam Franklin.

The Owls, who purposely took a safety on the game’s final play, had survived. Besides Bradley, defensive tackle Ifeanyi Maijeh had another dominating game with three tackles for loss, including two sacks among his six tackles.

“Those were fun to watch,” coach Rod Carey said about the defensive stands.

Not always fun watching the up-and-down offense.

“I think we missed a lot of opportunities, especially me,” said quarterback Anthony Russo, who completed 20 of 37 passes for 277 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception.

Carey says he saw a positive even with the offense and Russo not at their sharpest.

“Anthony didn’t play his best game and we won, so you just build off those things,” Carey said.

Russo made two NFL-type throws on his first two TD passes, a 29-yard pass in stride to Isaiah Wright in the first quarter and a 79-yard bomb to Jadan Blue that gave the Owls a 13-9 lead in the third.

The redshirt junior quarterback said both were originally run plays that he checked out of.

Maryland took a 15-13 lead when Tyler Mabry caught a 17-yard TD pass from Josh Jackson with 2:14 left in the third quarter.

Temple took a 20-15 lead when tight end Kenny Yeboah made a one-handed grab while wide open in the end zone for a 7-yard scoring pass with 7:27 left.

Then it was the defense’s turn to take over, having Christmas come a little early for the unit.