They needed one more play.
A week after their upset of nationally-ranked East Carolina, the Owls (5-4, 3-3 American Athletic Conference) lost to Memphis (6-3, 4-1 The American) 16-13 on a last-second field goal in a low-scoring defensive battle under the Friday night lights of Lincoln Financial Field.
“I just told our team ‘We just needed one more play,’” coach Matt Rhule said. “Whether it was [senior receiver] Jalen [Fitzpatrick] wide open, catches the football, one of those plays down the sideline, tip the ball, knock the ball out. We needed one more play to win that game.”
“I was proud of our kids,” Rhule added. “I thought they played hard. I thought on the physical end, the defense did a tremendous job until that last drive. They rallied when we made some mistakes. But to win those games you need to make that play and we didn’t make it, they did.”
The second-year coach pointed out the special teams opportunities Memphis capitalized on in particular. Like the punt blocked by redshirt-junior wide receiver Tevin Jones that was recovered at Temple’s 31-yard line with less than 10 minutes left until halftime, and the fumble recovery on a fair catch dropped by redshirt junior returner John Christopher late in the third quarter that the Tigers picked up on the Owls’ 10-yard line.
Both of those turnovers led to 42- and 27-yard field goals by sophomore kicker Jake Elliott.
They weren’t much, but combined with a 17-yard touchdown reception from redshirt-senior running back Brandon Hayes with less than five minutes remaining in the half and a 31-yard field goal from Elliott with one second left, it was enough.
“They just made more plays than we made,” redshirt-junior defensive lineman Praise-Martin Oguike, who made four solo tackles for a defense that held Memphis to 312 total yards, said.
Memphis’ winning drive carried the Tigers 66 yards down the field.
“We played well, but just not good enough” junior linebacker Tyler Matakevich said. “We came up on the short end of the stick. On that last drive, we just did not do what we did all game. We started giving up on big plays and loafing. Unfortunately, they just drove down the field and kicked a field goal.”
Temple held a 10-0 lead by the end of the first quarter, opening up scoring with a 43-yard field goal from freshman kicker Austin Jones within the first five minutes. Then senior running back Kenny Harper, who finished the night with 116 yards rushing, broke through with a 75-yard run up the middle.
The run was the longest of Harper’s career and of Temple’s season so far, eclipsing the previous long of 68 yards from sophomore Jahad Thomas.
Down 13-10 with 2:46 left in the fourth, Jones, who went 2-for-3 on his field goal attempts for the night, converted on a 46-yard field goal to tie it and cap off a 10 play, 29-yard drive that was started at the Owls own 43-yard line.
Sophomore quarterback P.J. Walker went 17-for-39 with 145 yards passing, after an opening quarter that saw just three pass attempts with no completions. He threw a pass that tipped off Christopher’s hand inside the red zone and fell into possession of Memphis’ senior defensive back Andrew Gaines at the 11-yard line for the game’s only interception.
The Owls will travel to Penn State next Saturday. It’s a matchup that Harper elects to stay quiet about around teammates.
“I’m not going to tell them anything,” Harper said. “It’s a game. When you get overwhelmed because it’s Penn State, guys don’t play like themselves. It’s just like playing Memphis, Cincinnati, Tulsa or ECU. It’s the same thing. There is nothing that they do that is going to stop us or affect us. We just have to play our game.”
Nick Tricome can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @itssnick215.