Temple reflects on its last-second loss to UCF
Rannell Hall's 64-yard catch with under 30 seconds to go set up UCF's game-winning 24-yard field goal. (USA Today Images)
It's not an indictment of the program, the coach, the previous coaches or their history.
It's just reality: The Temple Owls get close, sometimes painfully close, and then somehow find a way to lose football games.
And Saturday's loss to No. 17 UCF hurts as much as any in recent memory.
Shawn Moffitt's 24-yard field goal as time expired completed a borderline ridiculous UCF comeback that downed Temple, 39-36, at Lincoln Financial Field (see Instant Replay).
The loss drops Temple to 1-9 overall, a winless 0-6 in the American and a brutal 2-78 all time against top-25 opponents.
The Owls were two minutes and four seconds away from picking up their first win over a top-25 team in 15 years and their first ever over a ranked opponent at home.
But their eventual collapse was endemic of what's dogged them all season: their pass defense.
"I'll be positive to start," first-year head coach Matt Rhule said. "I told you guys I would try to make it exciting this year."
That he did, and that Saturday was. Consider …
Temple and UCF exchanged the lead 10 times and combined for 75 points, 50 first downs and 1,275 total yards.
Freshman quarterback P.J. Walker threw for a career-high 384 yards, scored five touchdowns, led a 99-yard touchdown drive and gave Temple the lead, 36-29, with 2:04 to play.
Your quarterback plays like that, and you have to try not to win.
Surely, they had it.
"I felt like we had the game the whole time," Walker said.
Nope. UCF senior quarterback Blake Bortles decided it would be better to take his team 70 yards in 58 seconds, avoid a rush, roll left on a broken play and heave the ball in order to find the outstretched fingertips of receiver J.J. Worton, who made a stunning, diving, one-handed catch to tie the game, 36-36, with 1:04 to play.
Surely, Temple was headed for overtime.
"Rannell Hall had previously said that Temple was sitting on everything and jumping things outside," Bortles said. "He told me he was to go and he went and made a big play."
And that's what he did. After Temple went three-and-out, Bortles found Hall over the middle, when Owls corner Anthony Robey bit on a fake to the outside, and Hall went 64 yards all the way to the Temple 6. Bortles ran UCF down the field as the sideline officials moved the chains, let seven seconds run off the clock and spiked the ball with two seconds left.
On came Moffitt, up went the ball, and away went Temple's hopes.
Which again brings us to one of those painful realities: Surely, Temple would lose -- because of its pass defense.
Temple allowed UCF to march 134 yards, complete 5 of 5 passing attempts and score the game's final 10 points in under two minutes. In all, the Owls let Bortles to rack up a career-high 404 passing yards and Worton and Hall to combine for 19 catches and 238. Worton set two career highs of his own with 179 yards and three TDs in a 10-catch performance capped off by his miraculous one-hander.
"I was shaking, I didn't know what to say, I didn't know who to talk to, so I just went inside and kept praying," Worton said. "I said thank you."
Worton has God, and the Temple secondary could use an exorcist. The Owls have allowed eight of their 10 opponents this season to throw for at least 300 yards and 10 different receivers to go over the century mark.
After he put up 165 yards on 14 catches in a win over Temple in Week 2, Houston receiver Deontay Greenberry said he knew he could get open over the middle. Eight games later, Hall was telling Bortles before UCF's final drive that he, again, knew he'd be open over the middle on a double-move.
Two months later, same story. Senior corner Anthony Robey was asked to explain what happened. He took the blame for Hall's 64-yarder, and it was hard not to feel bad for him. He was distraught.
"[It was] stupidity on my part," he said. "I've got to be smarter than that. I've got to be smarter than that.
"Just stupidity on my part," he repeated.
"I broke on the first move he gave me. I should have known he was going deep. I've got to be smarter. … I knew the play. I just have to be smarter."
Of course, this same thing happened to Temple in its last game, two weeks ago at Rutgers. The Owls gave up two over-the-top touchdowns passes of 33 and 34 yards in the fourth quarter and gave up the game-tying touchdown with only 35 seconds left.
"There's really no way to describe it," sophomore linebacker Tyler Matakevich said. "Back-to-back weeks we were right there with them. We could have played with anybody. … We just have to finish."
Which they haven't this year. While UCF has rallied from four second-half deficits to win games this season, Temple has blown five second-half leads and three in the fourth quarter. It's lost four games this season by a field goal or less.
"This is by far the toughest one to deal with," Walker said. "We had this game. For them to be a top-ranked team, we felt like we were better than them. We just had another game where we came up short."
Rhule and his coaching staff spent Temple's bye week following the Rutgers game on recruiting visits from North Jersey to Southern California. Rhule's defensive coordinator, Phil Snow, said that the players are only a reflection of the coaching.
But there is a future -- next year and beyond -- and Rhule has at least one eye on it.
"It certainly is exciting at the end of these games," he said. "I was hoping we would come out on the winning end, so obviously I'm completely disappointed.
"I thought our defense made some stops in the third quarter, but at the end of the game, we couldn't stop them inside of two minutes, which has been a struggle for us all year long.
"The days when we've been good, we've had a guy that was able to come off knock the ball out. That's going to be my job in the offseason. We have a couple games left to play, and we're going to get better. [But] the offseason is the time to find athletes that can help us in those situations."