Temple Football Owls outdueled in shootout with UCF

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

Fresh off a three-game win streak, the Temple Football Owls went shot for shot with the 12th ranked Knights of UCF in a gut-wrenching loss on Thursday.

Like a cheetah speeding through the Sudanian Savana on 11th gear, McKenzie Milton and the UCF offense tore apart the highly touted Temple defense. A rampant tornado steamrolling down the field drive after drive. Blink once, and you might miss a 55 second, 86-yard trip to the end zone. Blink twice, well, just don’t blink twice.

Of UCF’s eight scoring drives in Thursday night’s 52-40 win over the Temple Owls, only one lasted more than three minutes, and that the Knights attempt to run out the clock as they hammered the final nail in the coffin with a Matthew Wright 32 yard field goal.

To say that it’s difficult to contain that explosive offense wouldn’t give ample credit where it’s due. But Temple didn’t back down to the challenge, matching UCF drive for drive. Shot for shot.

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Aside from what seemed to be an untimely interception that was negated by a patented three-and-out by the Temple D, redshirt sophomore quarterback Anthony Russo flourished in the spotlight. Russo outperformed UCF’s dual-threat phenom McKenzie Milton on his own turf.

Temple’s young quarterback missed tying a school-record for passing yards in a single game one, going off for 444 yards and four touchdowns. Russo filled the remainder of the stat sheet with 12 rushes for 46 yards, and one of the slickest touchdown sneaks on a fake field goal that you can draw up on the chalkboard.

A portion of the burden was lifted from the quarterback’s shoulders in the return of Ryquell Armstead, the Owls senior running back, from a lingering ankle injury that held him out of the past two competitions. The injury was still clearly affecting Armstead every time the camera caught the back limping or being taped up on the sideline.

You wouldn’t have guessed there was anything wrong with Armstead on the field as he bullied his way to 142 yards on 42 carries in his first game back. It’s that kind of production and workload that can open up the passing game. Take notes coach Pederson.

That’s where the production on the ground ended for the Owls. Senior fullback Rob Ritrovato trucked his way through three carries that helped move the chains on one drive. Aside from that, any assistance to Armstead was missing in action.

Jager Gardner took only two carries for five yards and dropped a crucial screen pass that would’ve given the Owls offense a first down in the red zone with a chance to bring the game to a field goal’s difference with under six minutes remaining. The lack of help for Armstead and Russo on the ground is a significant concern for the future once number seven graduates and leaves the nest. It was also the difference in this game.

Where Armstead and Russo were carrying the bulk of the load for the Owls, UCF appeared to select and place an array of backs from a factory that breeds robotic machines programmed to pick up yards without a hint of fatigue.

Coming into the game, Adrian Killins Jr. was the featured back to watch with volatile speed and elusive quickness. Killins left the majority of his mark on the receiving end and sophomore Greg McCrae grabbed the torch, burning Temple with 188 yards on the ground, 66 of those coming in three plays on the opening possession of the second half capped by a 32 yard touchdown run to put the Knights ahead, a lead they would never relinquish for the remainder of the contest.

It was apparent early in the game that the first team failing to put up points on a drive could very well draw the short end of the stick. Though the game didn’t follow that exact formula, the Owls failure to counter McCrae’s score before UCF tacked another seven on the board would prove fatal.

Russo’s interception in their first drive looked to be the one-hiccup in a near flawless performance that would cost the young quarterback, but a brilliant defensive stand by an Owls squad that struggled all night primed Russo with a chance to grab the lead once again.

Pinned at their own three-yard line, Russo and Armstead clawed their way to the UCF half of the field, only to be let down on the first display of pressure from the Knight’s front four, as Trysten Hill plowed through the Temple offensive line for a sack. The Owls weren’t able to work themselves back into a third-and-manageable situation and were forced to punt the ball away.

There was no chance UCF would go two straight possessions without a score, and with that Temple was down eight. Still a one-possession game, the Owls offense marched to the red zone with a near rhythmic formula of Armstead run, Russo pass, and repeat.

All the way at the Knights 12-yard line on third-and-four, back-to-back false starts from an offensive line that struggled mightily with penalties all game, including three for 15 yards on behalf of Adam Klein, knifed the Owls touchdown chances in the heart.

Will Mobley, who was steady as a rock capitalizing on his first two attempts and going four-for-four on extra points, slipped up when it mattered the most and yanked his 40-yard attempt left, leaving the Owls scoreless yet again.

As if he placed it into a box, intricately blanketed with the most excellent wrapping paper and topped with a carefully curled ribbon of no more or less than six inches, McKenzie Milton mindlessly missed a wide open receiver than heaved a wildly inaccurate, delayed pass attempt that fell into the arms of Delvon Randall for his first interception of the season, gifting the Owls another opportunity to climb back into the game.

This time Russo capitalized and led the Owls to a score, leaving coach Geoff Collins with the ultimate decision. Do you go for two in an attempt to tie the ballgame right then and there, or do you take the extra point ensuring the game remain a one-score contest with just under 10 minutes remaining?

Collins opted to risk it all on an interesting decision, tossing the ball to Gardner on the outside where the junior back fell short of the goal line by a mere yard, the approximate length of an outstretched arm he failed to extend at the end of the play

The Knights swiftly fanned the flames when the fresh legs of Taj McGowan, the third in the running back arsenal, topped off a drive that took less than two minutes with a 10-yard touchdown run, extending their lead to nine.

Russo refused to lie down; completing five of his first six passes in their ensuing possession and leading them to the red zone once again. The most untimely sack allowed of Temple’s season followed Gardner’s aforementioned critical drop on second-and-10, forcing the Owls into a fourth-and-20 desperation mode with just under five minutes remaining. Russo’s heave to a double-covered Ventell Bryant fell to the ground, incomplete. With that, the game was, for all intents and purposes, over.

The Owls put up a school record 670 total yards of offense. Russo’s 444 through the air and Armstead’s 142 on the ground fighting through an ankle injury showcased the peak of an offense that’s been growing and improving each time out.

This game was another in the plethora of big stage learning experiences for Russo, and he is already showcasing great strides as top dog in Temple’s offense. Russo looked calm and composed all night, matching each and every one of Milton’s big plays.

From the 70-yard touchdown bomb in the arms of a wide open Randle Jones to the precisely threaded slant pass to Bryant in the end zone bringing the game within a field goal, Russo stepped up to the challenge.

UCF’s offense is just too explosive to contain, slicing and dicing Temple’s once steady defense. The loss all but writes off Temple’s chances of a spot in the AAC championship game and the tough road continues for the Owls with a matchup against the arguably more explosive Houston Cougars next Friday at TDECU Stadium.

Next. The Temple Owls claws back to beat nationally ranked Cincinnati. dark

All is not lost for the Temple Owls this season. Their two early season losses to Villanova and Buffalo sting and will continue to do so as they fight for a spot come bowl season. At worst, we are witnessing flashes of what’s to come from an Owls’ program headed by a promising young coach and start quarterback. The future is bright for Temple Football, and though they failed to knock off a top-ranked opponent for the second time in as many games, they showed the world that they’re on the way back to the national spotlight atop the AAC’s best.