A year ago at this time, the story of Temple football was very different.
After three games in 2015, the Owls were 3-0, and that record included a 27-10 win over Penn State and a 34-26 win over Cincinnati. Temple won its next four games before barely losing to No. 9 Notre Dame, 24-20.
The Owls finished the season with an appearance in the American Athletic Conference title game — a 24-13 loss to No. 19 Houston — and finished the season with a 10-3 record. Sure, the Owls lost two straight to end the season (also losing to Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl), but head coach Matt Rhule had put his program on the map. He was one of the hottest coaches in college football and he received a brand new contract worth a lot more money.
Things were good in Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, that good mojo hasn’t necessarily carried over to the 2016 season. There’s still a lot of football left to play, but after Week 3, Temple sits at 1-2 with losses to Army and now Penn State.
The Nittany Lions got revenge for their season-opening loss in 2015 by beating the Owls, 34-27, in State College, Pennsylvania.
It wasn’t as though Rhule and the Owls didn’t have a chance. They forced Penn State into three turnovers, including two fumbles and an interception from sophomore quarterback Trace McSorely, who started only the third game of his young career. Penn State was also forced to play without the services of all-star running back Saquon Barkley for much of the first half. He was hurt on PSU’s first play from scrimmage and didn’t return until the second half.
Temple couldn’t capitalize on PSU’s misfortune, though, allowing the Nittany Lion offense to score two touchdowns with Barkley out. McSorely hit a 52-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and also ran for a two-yard touchdown in the second. A touchdown run from Andre Robinson was sandwiched between the McSorely scores, and Temple went into halftime down 21-10.
Barkley came back in the second half for Penn State and provided James Franklin’s squad with enough firepower to hold on. Even though he basically played only one half, Barkley led his team in rushing with 68 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. He broke the game open for Penn State with a 55-yard touchdown run with 7:20 to go in the fourth quarter. That made a three-point game a 10-point game, and it was the beginning of the end for the Owls.
“I thought we did a good job against Barkley up until that last run,” Rhule said in his post-game press conference. “Obviously you can’t win a ballgame when you allow him to have a 55-yard run.
Temple’s inability to stop Barkley was one reason for the loss. The Owls’ own struggles running the ball were another.
Even the most pass-happy offenses need a balance of effectiveness in the run to keep a defense honest, and Temple couldn’t establish anything resembling that against the Penn State defense. The Owls rushed for only 38 yards as a team.
If there’s a silver lining to that stat, it’s that senior running back Jahad Thomas was able to find the end zone two times. His overall numbers weren’t all that impressive, though — he rushed for just 52 yards on 14 carries, averaging 3.7 yards a carry.
The big story of the game for Temple was missed opportunities. The Owls actually won the time of possession battle 31:27 to 28:33, and they won the turnover battle 3-1 as well. Temple’s only turnover was a Phillip Walker interception. The senior quarterback finished the day completing 25-of-34 passes for 286 yards. He couldn’t find the end zone, and his interception came at a terrible time — with Temple down 34-27 with 34 seconds to go. The Owls’ defense had just forced a Penn State punt to give the offense a chance.
It was another missed opportunity that led to the loss.
“We feel like we have a good team. I think you saw spurts and moments where we look like a really, really good team,” Rhule said. “We’ll keep trying to grow ’em and come back next week and try getting back to 2-2 and make a run in the conference.”
The Owls kick off AAC conference play in two weekends against the SMU Mustangs. In Week 4, Temple takes on the Charlotte 49ers of Conference USA at home.