PISCATAWAY, N.J – After Saturday’s 23-20 loss at Rutgers, junior running back Kenny Harper stood in the corner of the press room and tried to make sense of the situation by bringing up an old-school fable.
Harper referred to an old sermon from Temple founder Russell Conwell, in which a farmer learns the value of diamonds and subsequently leaves his family and life behind in search of the jewels. After utilizing all of the recourses at his disposal, the man takes his own life. After his death, however, a field of diamonds is discovered on the farmland the man had left behind.
The moral of the story is that prosperity lies within.
“It’s the same principle,” Harper said. “It’s the same thing going with us.”
With Temple dropping to 1-8 on the season, the prospect of self-betterment still remains a source of hope for the Owls. But even though the team improved from its 59-49 loss to Southern Methodist the week before, Temple failed multiple times in the fourth quarter to finish off the Scarlet Knights.
After a 25-yard Harper touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, Temple held a 20-16 lead. With less than two minutes left in the game, the Owls found themselves in a 4th-and-1 situation at the Rutgers 27-yard-line. With the Scarlet Knights out of timeouts, the opportunity was there to close out the game.
Coach Matt Rhule said there was no debate on whether the Owls would go for the first down. The kicking game continued to struggle, as Nick Visco missed the team’s fifth extra point of the season during the first quarter. Even if Temple had made a field goal, Rutgers would have gotten the ball back in a one-score game. But the Knights’ defense lined up anticipating the run, and Harper was stuffed at the line of scrimmage for a loss of one yard.
“We were running something similar for most of the game,” Rhule said. “They brought the house, and you need someone to make a block and Kenny to slip off like he had done a couple of other times on fourth-and-1.”
“You know they’re going to outnumber you,” Rhule added. “You know that no matter how many guys are out there, it just comes down to good old-fashioned football. You’re going to have to move people and get the yard. Obviously we didn’t.”
The play call was the same as the one the Owls used during the second quarter on a 4th-and-1 situation. Harper converted the first down on that drive, which later ended in a touchdown that he scored. In the fourth quarter, Rutgers was more prepared.
“I think we called the right play, it’s just that they schemed a good blitz for us,” Harper said.
Even after Temple failed to finish off Rutgers, the Owls had another opportunity to close out the game. After driving past midfield, redshirt-freshman Nate D. Smith sacked quarterback Gary Nova. The result was a fourth-and-15 situation for the Scarlet Knights, as Temple needed just one more stop to take over on downs and run out the clock.
But a delay of game penalty on freshman linebacker Sharif Finch made it a fourth-and-10 and stopped the clock. On the next play, Nova completed a 33-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Leonte Carroo for the touchdown that gave Rutgers the lead with 42 seconds remaining. The drive was eight plays and lasted one minute, 15 seconds.
While the Scarlet Knights still had to make a play to convert on a long fourth down, the penalty didn’t help.
“Our kid came up with the football,” Rhule said. “They called delay of game because our kid had the ball and wouldn’t give them the ball. On our end, we have to be smarter than that. It was a crucial situation.”
The game marks the second time this season that the Owls have lost in the final seconds of the game on a long touchdown pass, the first one being a home loss to Fordham. On Saturday, the Carroo touchdown could have been avoided with just another half yard from the Owls’ offense.
“We’ll take this and we’ll learn from it,” Rhule said. “All the players are understanding how much better we are getting. At the same time, we have to get that half yard if we want to win. I’m disappointed for them, but my hat’s off to Rutgers. They fought back and played well. As we move forward, we’re going to fight for that half yard.”
Harper finished the game with 49 rushing yards and two total touchdowns – giving him a team-leading season total of 11. Harper has experienced more losses this season than in either of his first two with the Owls.
“It really cuts you a little deeper,” Harper said. “You want to progress from the week before, which I think we did. But you want to see the result with a win, of course.”
Freshman quarterback P.J. Walker finished the game 21-for-31, throwing for 203 yards, two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. The loss is something he said he doesn’t want to forget.
“It’s very emotional because we knew we had this game in the bag,” Walker said. “At that point when it was 4th-and-1, we knew we had to get it down. But it didn’t happen. We just have to come out in practice and remember that 4th-and-1 every day. Wintertime or spring, we have to remember that 4th-and-1, no matter what.”
Temple will have a week off before hosting No. 19 Central Florida on Nov. 16. The last time the Owls faced a nationally ranked team was earlier this season against Louisville when the Cardinals won 30-7.
Not only will the Owls face a challenge in holding off a national powerhouse in UCF, but after the Rutgers loss, the team veterans face a challenge in keeping the locker room together through the last month of the season.
“You’ve got to tell them to keep going,” Harper said. “I know it sounds like it’s repetitive because every week it’s kind of a tough loss, tough loss. But you’ve just got to tell them to keep going. Eventually it’s going to click, and when it clicks it’s going to be something special. Even though you might be upset or be down, it’s right there. It’s kind of like the story where the dude was digging for the diamonds.”
Avery Maehrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AveryMaehrer.