STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - It almost got to the point Saturday at Beaver Stadium where Penn State needed to check with the hundreds of lettermen who returned to campus this weekend and ask if any of them had eligibility remaining.
Five starters were out for the game against Temple before the opening kickoff. As the overcast afternoon continued, four more joined them on the sidelines, including running back Saquon Barkley, who limped off the field after carrying for 8 yards on the game's first play.
But the reinforcements who came in managed to maintain a consistent level of play. Barkley, who eventually returned to the game, broke free for an electrifying 55-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter that carried the Nittany Lions to a 34-27 victory before a crowd of 100,420.
Penn State (2-1) showed some resiliency throughout the game as coach James Franklin and his staff kept plugging holes. At one point in the first quarter, a total of seven defensive starters were on the sideline, including regular linebackers Nyeem Wartman-White, Jason Cabinda, and Brandon Bell.
Starting safeties Marcus Allen and Malik Golden reentered the game to key the defense. Redshirt junior Brandon Smith, a former walk-on who had played three games in his two previous active seasons, filled in admirably at middle linebacker for Wartman-White, whose injury - as with others at Penn State - was not disclosed.
"He played his butt off, we didn't miss a beat," Allen said. "The Mike position is basically the quarterback. He made sure that everybody got the calls. The next man up is a big emphasis on our defense. Smitty took the opportunity to play as hard as he could."
The Owls (1-2), who capitalized on a pair of turnovers to score 14 points, were limited to just 38 yards on the ground. Jahad Thomas, who returned from a thumb injury to see his first action of the season, accounted for two touchdowns and 100 yards rushing and receiving. Phillip Walker had his best game of the year with 286 passing yards.
"There were a lot of good things, but you have to do your job," Temple coach Matt Rhule said. "I thought they got that at halftime. That's why you saw us show up in the second half and play a little bit better."
Penn State started quickly and led, 21-7, midway through the second quarter. However, the Lions labored on offense in the second half, gaining just two field goals on three trips into Temple territory. The Owls converted an interception by Delvon Randall into a Walker touchdown run, and capitalized on a crazy bouncing rugby-style punt that hit off Penn State's Amani Oruwariye that was claimed at the 1.
That miscue led to Thomas' 3-yard TD run that narrowed the Lions lead to 27-24 with 8 minutes, 10 seconds to play. The fans squirmed in their seats, fearing a second upset loss to the Owls in as many seasons.
Cue Barkley, who returned to the game late in the second quarter. On a second-and-5 play from the Lions 45, Barkley took a handoff, threaded his way through the left side, cut back to the right faking out a would-be tackler, and was gone.
"If you can get the ball in this guy's hands, there's a chance he's going to do something special," said quarterback Trace McSorley, who went 18 of 24 for 287 yards with a 52-yard touchdown pass to Chris Godwin. "I wouldn't say it took pressure off us. It was just awesome for us to see. We were able to swing the momentum back our way."
The Owls drove to a 34-yard field goal by Austin Jones to make it a seven-point game with 2:10 remaining. Penn State recovered the ensuing onside kick and Temple got the ball back at its own 15 with 37 seconds and no timeouts left before Walker threw an interception to John Reid to ice the game.
"I thought our defense really played well," Franklin said. "We've got to stop turning the ball over on offense, it puts our defense in a tough spot. But I thought our defense played well. It was great to see so many different guys step up and make plays for us."