FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The dreaded label had been on so many of these Temple players before. They had been known as a group that had a knack for letting games slip away and finding ways to lose.
With big wins over Penn State and Cincinnati, everyone thought the Owls were over that.
But after blowing a late lead to heavy underdog UMass on Saturday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, that label started to rear its ugly head yet again.
Are they really past their old ways?
Yes, they are, because the Owls were the team that found the way to win on Saturday.
Despite an uneven performance on both sides of the ball, another crucial Jahad Thomas fumble and a late UMass touchdown pass that gave the Minutemen the lead, Temple found a way. With a blocked extra-point return, a near-flawless two-minute drill and sophomore kicker Austin Jones’ 32-yard field goal with 12 seconds left, the Owls beat the Minutemen, 25-23 (see Instant Replay).
“I’m really proud of our guys for finding a way to win,” Temple head coach Matt Rhule said following the victory that improved his team’s record to 3-0. “Was it the way we wanted to play? No. But games like that, we have to find a way to win. I think good teams do that.”
Temple jumped out to an early 14-7 lead thanks to a 23-yard touchdown reception by Adonis Jennings and a 14-yard touchdown run by Thomas, but the Owls’ offense struggled to find a rhythm all day.
Quarterback P.J. Walker, who threw 40 times in the first two games combined, went 28 for 48 for 391 yards and a touchdown. But he still telegraphed throws, made bad reads, threw into coverage and made mistakes that stalled Temple drives. He also threw two interceptions, his first two of the season.
“I made some stupid plays today by just trying to do too much,” the junior said. “But we just kept playing and made the plays that mattered.”
Temple’s offensive mistakes helped give UMass momentum and the Minutemen took advantage of that momentum.
Senior quarterback Blake Frohnapfel went 29 for 55 for 393 yards and three touchdowns on the day against Temple’s vaunted defense. Eleven of those completions and 156 of those yards came by way of senior wideout Tajae Sharpe, whom Temple struggled mightily to stop all afternoon.
Senior tight end Rodney Mills burnt Temple star linebacker and former Milford Academy (Conn.) teammate Tyler Matakevich twice in coverage for touchdowns.
It was just that kind of day for the Owls’ defense.
“I don’t think we realized just how good UMass is,” Matakevich, who finished the day with nine tackles, said. “That’s an excellent team. You can’t take anything away from them. But you’ve got to give us credit, too. We just kept fighting when our backs we’re against the wall. You thought it was over. But it wasn’t.”
By all accounts, it should have been over in Temple’s favor much earlier.
But for the second week in a row, Thomas fumbled on a late fourth-quarter run as Temple attempted to eat up clock. UMass, down 20-17, recovered at its own 41 with 2:45 left in the game.
The Minutemen took advantage when Frohnapfel hit running back Jamal Wilson for a 16-yard touchdown pass and a 23-20 lead.
But Temple lineman Praise Martin-Oguike blocked the ensuing point after. Stephaun Marshall picked it up and lateraled to Will Hayes, who took it to the end zone. That gave Temple two points to cut the lead to 23-22.
It was an important play because it ensured the Owls needed only a field goal to get the lead back.
“It was huge,” Hayes said. “I heard the block, so I immediately looked in the backfield and I saw the ball rolling around. Me and Stephaun immediately sprinted up to it. Stephaun initially got the ball. I saw him getting tackled and I just yelled, ‘Pitch it! Pitch it! I’m here!’ He heard me, thank God.”
“That was the biggest play of the game,” Matakevich said. “If they kick that ball through, we’re down four. Our field goal would mean nothing and we would have to score [a touchdown]. That proves how key of a play that was.”
Down by one to start the following drive, the Owls executed a near-perfect two-minute drill and got well within Jones’ range with 12 ticks left on the clock.
He drilled a 32-yarder for the 25-23 lead and the Owls found a way to win.
“I was a little nervous, I’ve got to say that, but it was like any other kick to me,” Jones, who is now 7 for 7 on the year, said. “I knew it was going to go in before I kicked it, before the play even started.”
After being on the wrong end of these kinds of games so many times, Temple’s head coach stressed there was plenty to learn from Saturday’s game, a contest his team entered as a 13.5-point favorite.
If the Owls want to be great, they better start getting used to being challenged and pulling out tight games.
“I hope they learned they don’t win by yelling and they win by playing well,” Rhule said. “I hope they learned that they can handle adversity. They’ve been through all those moments. I hope they learned they’re going to get other teams’ best shots now. Other teams are going to get excited to play Temple. That’s a good thing. We want that.”
Matakevich, the Owls’ senior leader, echoed his head coach’s message about coming out on top in the face of adversity.
“It’s something we’re not used to," Matakevich said, "but we’ve got to get used to it.”