Down, but not out. That was the story of Temple’s improbable 27-17 come-from-way-behind victory over South Florida at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday. The Owls forced five second-half turnovers while scoring touchdowns on offense, defense, and special teams to erase a 17-point halftime deficit.
But it’s also the story of Temple’s season. After a 0-2 start, which had many wondering if things might really go off the rails, the Owls have rebounded to win seven of their next nine games.
So what’s changed in this team from the time a disconsolate Geoff Collins stood at the same Linc podium following a 36-29 loss to Buffalo back on Sept. 9, which came on the heels of a 19-17 loss to Villanova? Collins insisted not that much.
“We just kept doing what we were doing,” said Collins, after the Owls overcame a sluggish first half to turn it on after intermission and moved into the second place in the AAC East behind unbeaten Central Florida at 6-1. “We were a really good football team then, I said it two weeks into the season. Everyone expected me to be doom and gloom and be negative. There was no need for it.”
“We were doing the things that we were supposed to do to be a great football team” he explained. “But we learned to start fast, we learned to strike first, we learned to finish, we learned to play together. And do not hurt yourself, that is a recipe for playing great football.”
The second-year head coach also added, “We are tough. That what existed the first two weeks, that’s existed throughout the season. Then we just kept playing smarter and getting better. Now you see what this team is capable of.”
It’s all part of that familiar “C” word, for which Collins deserves far more credit than he’ll ever accept.
“I think you always talk about the culture of a team,” said defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker, whose unit struggled in the first half, then forced two fumbles and two interceptions to help keep the Bulls off the board.
“That’s what makes special head coaches. You go down 0-2 for the season. Today’s [Saturday] a microcosm of that. You go down 0-17. That’s a micro of our season.”
“But the kids responded to adversity. He’s continued to stay positive and provide structure and discipline,” the defensive coordinator added. “He’s continued to challenge them. So much of this a testament to the head coach instilling those values in our guys. The word culture gets overused, but you can’t deny it.”
Whatever it was that turned that energized the Owls, the force never diminished. Temple stayed in command from the time an apparently successful onside kick was nullified by a penalty until Dana Levine’s strip sack of USF’s Blake Barnett was recovered by Chapelle Russell in the end zone for the clinching touchdown.
Along the way, they had two interceptions and a fumble recovery, a pair of Will Mobley field goals, recovered an onside kick, then took the lead on Isaiah Wright’s 73-yard punt return.
That enabled Temple’s seniors to become the winningest class in school history (34), with Ventell Bryant setting the school record with 167 career receptions. Next week, they’ll go for win No. 35 at Connecticut.
Meanwhile, running back Ryquell Armstead, who scored six touchdowns and rushed for 221 yards at Houston, settled for 64 yards on 26 carries and one score. But he didn’t seem to mind one bit.
“We were able to get the running game going into the second half,” said Armstead, who moved over the 1,000-yard mark for the season with 1,042.
“We had positive energy and I didn’t let my frustration build. We understand we’re a good team. We fell short of it the first two games. We’ve put it all together now and we’ve been rolling.”
That didn’t seem very likely two months ago when Collins and the Owls seemed to be at an early crossroads. But thanks to a team that leads the country in non-offensive touchdowns (11), an offense that became revitalized once sophomore Anthony Russo took over at quarterback and a defense which has forced 24 turnovers, 7-4 Temple will soon be heading to a bowl game for the fourth straight season.
“We just came in and started worrying about the little things,” said Randall, who leads the team with 48 solo tackles and three interceptions. “Just trying to go 1-0 every week. We don’t care about what the outside world said about us. We believed and we executed.”
Down back then, for sure. However, on Saturday, these Temple Owls are flying high into their final regular season game.