WASHINGTON - It was a season that showed just how far Temple's much-maligned football program had come.
And also one that told how far the Owls still have to go.
It began nearly 4 months ago, with a come-from-ahead loss to eventual FCS national champion Villanova at Lincoln Financial Field on a field goal on the final play.
There was a nine-game winning streak, for a team that had not won more than seven times in any season since 1979.
There was the 18-point loss at Ohio that kept them out of the Mid-American Conference title game.
And last night, in front of 23,072 hearty souls at frigid RFK Stadium, it ended with a 30-21 EagleBank Bowl loss to a UCLA team that only got into this game because the ninth-place team in the Atlantic Coast Conference didn't win enough games to qualify.
This was Temple's (9-4) first postseason appearance in three decades. That's important. Going out with another victory would have been even better, especially after the Owls took a 14-point lead late in the second quarter.
It's about steps. This one will have to wait. It doesn't figure to take another 30 years.
The Bruins (7-6), who didn't go to a bowl last season and were trying to win one for the first time since 2005, would score the final 23 points. They went ahead for the first time with 6 minutes remaining, when linebacker Akeem Ayers intercepted a Vaughn Charlton pass in the left flat and ran 2 yards for a touchdown. A minute and a half later, they added a safety when Temple's Sean Boyle snapped it over the head of punter Jeff Wathne and the ball went out of the end zone.
"Obviously, we're disappointed in the outcome," said fourth-year coach Al Golden, who inherited a winless team and went 1-11 in his 2006 debut. "But I don't want this to diminish what these seniors have accomplished in their career . . . It was an unfortunate end."
The Owls played the second half without freshman Bernard Pierce, who rushed for over 1,300 yards this year. But he reinjured the same left shoulder that had kept him out of the last two games, after carrying 12 times for 53 yards and a TD. So 5-5 Matt Brown, another first-year guy who'd played well in Pierce's place before, took over once again.
This time, though, something was different.
"I just knew I had a big role to fill," said Brown, who finished with 83 yards and a score on 20 attempts. "One big problem was, it was very icy. You couldn't move as well as you wanted to."
Temple had only four second-half first downs, and 35 rushing yards. Charlton, who hadn't started since Oct. 31, threw for 153 yards in the opening 30 minutes. After that he went 1-for-7. And there was that one decisive mistake.
"[Ayers] came out of nowhere," explained Charleton, who got the nod over Chester Stewart. "He made a tremendous play. He's done that twice [before] this year. I didn't see him.
"We got caught in a couple of bad situations [in the second half] and we couldn't get out of them."
The Owls scored on the opening possession, going 80 yards in six plays. A 26-yard pass from Charleton to tight end Steve Maneri made it 7-0 less than 3 minutes in.
The Bruins answered the second time they got it, on a 46-yard pass from Kevin Prince to Nelson Rosario.
Temple went back in front with an 85-yard march late in the second period. After getting the ball right back on a Marquise Liverpool interception, the Owls only needed to go 15 yards to double their advantage.
The Bruins cut it to 11 on a 40-yard field goal by Kai Forbath, one of the nation's best, on the last snap of the half after Temple couldn't covert a long pass on third-and-3 from its 27.
"I lament the execution of that [series]," Golden said. "[The result] was unimaginable."
UCLA got to within four on the first possession of the second half, on a 32-yard catch-and-run by Terrence Austin on a fourth-and-1. Temple then got to the Bruins' 9, but Brown was stopped for no gain on fourth and what appeared to be a long foot. Brown looked he might have actually moved the chains on a third-down run, but the officials didn't see it that way.
"I thought [going for it] was our best chance there," Golden explained. "I didn't think three points was going to help us much."
With 12:31 left, Forbath made it a one-point game from 42 yards out. The rest you know. The Owls didn't make a first down in the final period.
"We definitely came a long way," said senior strong safety Dominique Harris, who is from here. "We've been through a lot together. We just kept building it up. To end the way it did, I wish we could have got one more. But we did have a successful season. That came from a lot of blood, sweat and tears. A lot of teammates were thanking us for everything.
"We practiced hard, we prepared hard, every week, to do what we had to do . . . [UCLA] finished the game strong. They did what they were supposed to do. That's what it came down to."
The Owls will lose just six starters. Of the eight players who made first-team all-MAC, seven are back. So is the coach, whose name kept coming up for job openings from Notre Dame to Cincinnati.
So while it was an opportunity wasted, it's not so much a farewell as a beginning.
"I hope we gleaned a lot from this experience," said Golden, who interviewed for the UCLA job when former Bruin quarterback Rick Neuheisel got it 2 years ago. "We still have to take that next step. That's what we want to do here.
"It's going to take some time [to reflect on the season]. This was tough. We needed to make a couple of plays that could have been the difference in the game. But I'm proud of our guys, the way we've grown up. We came to play in every game, ready to go. We're excited about the direction we're going. We need to move forward.
"I know the guys got some confidence that will carry over to next year."
It can't get here soon enough. So how many times has Temple ever been able to say that?