ORLANDO -- Matt Rhule was emotionally drained, and nobody could blame him. The Temple coach was trying to sum up an ending of a game he says was like no other in his career.
Then again, how many teams win a game they never led until literally the last second?
Other than the cheering on the Temple sidelines, Bright House Networks Stadium went silent when Temple pulled out a win that might have saved this up-and-down season, an improbable, last-second 26-25 American Athletic Conference victory over a stunned Central Florida team Saturday night.
Keith Kirkwood hauled in an 8-yard scoring pass from Phillip Walker with one second left to complete a madcap comeback.
"We told our team it was time to grow up and win the fourth quarter," Rhule said. "I didn't know it would be with a second left, but I thought our kids kept pressing."
Temple is 4-3 overall and 2-1 in the in the AAC. In the three losses, the Owls never won the fourth quarter. They were outscored by 14-0 in an opening 28-13 loss to Army. In their 34-27 loss at Penn State, both teams scored 10 points, and during a 34-27 loss at Memphis, it was 14-14 in the fourth quarter.
The Owls trailed Central Florida by 25-20 and took over with 32 seconds left, no timeouts, and the ball on their 30-yard line. The odds weren't exactly in their favor.
Up to that point, Walker had thrown for 97 yards.
Then all of a sudden, Walker was completing passes with pinball-like efficiency: 20 yards to Ventell Bryant to midfield, 16 yards to Bryant to the UCF 34, and another 26 yards to Bryant to the 8.
Kirkwood then finished matters on a play that was basically drawn up for four receivers to run routes and the first one to get open to get the ball.
"It was all four guys available," Walker said.
And the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Kirkwood got early separation and then put his basketball skills to use in a leaping 8-yard reception that was the only score by either team in the fourth quarter.
Kirkwood was a standout at New Jersey's Neptune High and received Division I basketball offers. No wonder his signature play in football is the jump ball.
"That is probably my favorite play as a receiver, going up to make a play," Kirkwood said, still trying to digest this wild ending to a game in which the Owls trailed by 25-7 early in the second quarter. "In basketball in high school, l led my team in rebounds, so it was basically like a rebound in the air, going up to get it and coming down with it."
All season, Temple has been unfairly compared to last year's squad that tied a school record with 10 wins.
That team had impressive comeback wins, although none of this magnitude. Temple had little trouble in its previous three wins this year, so this was the type of adversity Rhule was looking to see his team overcome, although even he couldn't have envisioned such a dramatic conclusion.
This doesn't ensure that Temple will carry that momentum into Friday's matchup against East Division favorite South Florida (6-1 overall, 3-0 conference) at Lincoln Financial Field, but it certainly won't hurt the team's collective confidence.
The players and Rhule seemed to understand that they were part of something special.
"This is a storybook ending," said defensive end Haason Reddick, who had two of the Owls' seven sacks.
It was a game in which nobody could have scripted a more dramatic conclusion, and that includes last year's team.