Even by Temple football and COVID-19 standards, Saturday’s game at Lincoln Financial Field was bizarre, and that was before the opening kickoff.

The Owls, who were supposed to start a fourth-string quarterback, ended up starting a fifth-stringer after the fourth-stringer was suspended.

Then, the game was delayed nearly 50 minutes because of a COVID-19 issue.

Oh yes, Temple lost its fifth game in a row, this one 28-3 to East Carolina . Temple is 1-6 both overall and in the American Athletic Conference. ECU is 2-6 overall and 2-5 in the conference.

The game had a scheduled 12:03 p.m. kickoff. But Temple coach Rod Carey said that he became aware about 11:15 that Temple could have a positive COVID-19 case.

“We had tested [Friday] like our normal protocol,” Carey said. “And then this popped up because the symptoms popped up. And then we went and had [the player] do a rapid test. And he came back positive, and then they use the contact tracing that they use.”

It is not known who tested positive, but the five players deemed out for the game because of contract tracing were linebacker George Reid; defensive backs Christian Braswell, Kimere Brown and Nate Wyatt; and defensive end Arnold Ebiketie. All but Wyatt were starters.

Temple was already dealing with a quarterback change that the starter didn’t know about until about 8:40 a.m. Saturday morning. Freshman Matt Duncan was supposed to start but was suspended by Carey indefinitely.

Carey said the situation came up late Friday night.

“I worked through it most of the night, and then [Saturday] morning I suspended him indefinitely for violation of team rules,” Carey said.

Duncan was Temple’s fourth-string quarterback. So that meant the starter was fifth-stringer Kamal Gray, a freshman walk-on who starred locally at Pope John Paul II in Royersford.

After hearing the news, Gray got down to business.

Temple quarterback Kamal Gray (18) throws the ball against East Carolina on Saturday. He was a surprise starter.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Temple quarterback Kamal Gray (18) throws the ball against East Carolina on Saturday. He was a surprise starter.

“First of all, I went through plays with all the coaches and asked any questions I had, walked through all my reads,” Gray said. “And then as soon as that was over I texted my dad and told him. [I knew] he would be excited, and then I went through walk-throughs.”

As for the quarterback situation, first-stringer Anthony Russo missed his fourth straight game, the first two with a shoulder injury and the last two in COVID-19 protocol. Carey said that Russo will come out of protocol Tuesday, but he doesn’t know whether the quarterback can play in Saturday’s finale against visiting Cincinnati.

“I don’t know where his arm is at or what type of shape he is in,” Carey said.

Redshirt sophomores Trad Beatty and Re-al Mitchell were out with injuries.

Temple is so depleted at quarterback that redshirt senior receiver Branden Mack, a former quarterback at Cheltenham High, was the Owls’ backup.

Temple was also without offensive linemen Griffin Sestili and Victor Stoffel, both on the COVID-19 protocol list.

Several players who had key roles the previous week but didn’t play against ECU (2-6, 2-5 AAC) due to injury included wide receiver Jadan Blue; cornerback Lindwood Crump; offensive linemen Joseph Hooper, Adam Klein and Vincent Picozzi; and safety Amir Tyler.

Temple hung tough, but the special teams’ year-long struggle continued when ECU’s Tyler Snead returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown, increasing a lead to 14-3 with 11 minutes, 22 seconds left in the first half.

The game changed for good late in the first half. Gray, on a second-and-7 from the ECU 8-yard line, was intercepted by Shawn Doursea in the end zone on a fade pass to Mack with 1:04 left in the second quarter. Gray threw into double coverage.

“We had a real shot at that one, and if I could take that one back I would fix that,” Gray said.

Two plays later, a wide-open Snead scored on a 46-yard touchdown pass from Holton Ahlers, taking advantage of a Temple busted coverage, making it 21-3.

Carey started Mack at quarterback to begin the second half and played him for two series before returning to Gray. The Temple coach said he just wanted to settle his young quarterback down.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Gray completed 10 of 21 passes for 94 yards and two interceptions while running for 13 yards on two carries.

“I think he did pretty good,” Mack said of Gray. “He went out and executed.”

Adding to Temple’s injury woes, running back Tayvon Ruley injured his shoulder late in the first half and didn’t return. Carey had no immediate report.

Ruley carries the ball against East Carolina.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Ruley carries the ball against East Carolina.

The undermanned Temple team fought hard against ECU, but now the only positive news is that there is just one game left in this forgettable season.

“This is building character,” Mack said. “We are learning how to fight through adversity. That’s all we have been fighting through this whole season.”