Close, but not close enough.
That’s how senior defensive end Mike Mendenhall described his failed attempt to block Western Michigan’s game-winning field goal with three seconds left Saturday. Mendenhall said he came within a foot of deflecting the kick and sending the Owls and the Broncos into overtime.
Instead the Owls, doomed by turnovers and penalties, watched their 11-point first-half lead dwindle to a deficit in the Broncos’ 19-16 win at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Owls fumbled three times, turning it over twice. An interception and nine penalties didn’t help their case, either.
After the game, a few Owls maintained they still have some fight. They’re going to need it, with perennial conference contenders Miami and Clemson headlining a punishing schedule. This Saturday the Owls face Bowling Green, the perpetrators of a 70-16 Temple loss last October.
In the postgame press conference, coach Bobby Wallace said hustle can only take a team so far. Mistakes were the cause of the Owls’ unraveling, he said.
“We’ve always managed to keep fighting,” Wallace said. “Every game you can win, but it hurts when you get a lot of penalties. We turned it over ourselves three times, and didn’t execute. I put this loss on my shoulders and go with it.”
Senior defensive tackle Antwon Burton was dejected, as he and his D-line teammates flourished against the Broncos. Senior linebacker Manuel Tapia quietly recorded 18 tackles, shattering his previous career-high of 12 set earlier this season at Wisconsin. Senior defensive end Rodney Wormley, senior nose tackle Adam Fichter and Mendenhall combined for 28 tackles, two forced fumbles and a sack.
Burton recovered a fumble and collected six tackles against the Broncos, a team he said the Owls should have beaten.
“It’s hard to believe you can’t win a game when your defensive line alone has two sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception, and a fumble recovery,” he said. “It [really] beats me how you lose that kind of game.”
The Owls’ offensive deficiencies could be to blame, Burton added.
“Offensively, we have to pick it up,” Burton said. “I’m on defense, but I see the results on Saturday, and it’s never good.”
Multiple times, it looked as if the Owls were about to break through on offense. On the second play from scrimmage, senior wide receiver Brian Allbrooks’ 58-yard catch-and-run on a short screen pass gave the Owls prime field position at the 8 yard line. Two plays later, the Owls were celebrating six points and their first lead of the season.
But the Owls’ happy times didn’t last long, as senior kicker Ryan Lux’s point after attempt was blocked, then returned by the Broncos’ Ameer Ismail for a two-point score.
The Owls added a touchdown to boost their lead to 13-2. The Broncos struck twice to take a 16-13 lead, and a 26-yard field goal from Lux tied the game.
Scoring opportunities for both teams were less in the second half, but the Owls threatened to take the lead twice in the third quarter.
Lux’s opening second-half kickoff had little air under it, but opportunistic junior Chris Page recovered the live ball just in bounds at the Broncos’ 31 yard line. The Owls lost 10 yards on a holding call, then senior running back Umar Ferguson fumbled to end the drive.
On another third-quarter possession, the Owls moved from deep in their own territory to the Broncos’ 17. On third down, senior quarterback Mike McGann delivered a pass to junior wideout Jamel Harris. As he was about to break the plane of the goalline, Harris coughed up the ball and the Broncos recovered.
From then on, the Broncos (2-2, 1-0 in the MAC) keyed on the Owls’ running game. Ferguson said senior Michael Billops and sophomore Mike Neal were scratched from the game, leaving Ferguson as the Owls’ lone back. Ferguson carried 33 times for 110 yards and a touchdown.
The Owls had a chance late in the fourth quarter to run out the clock and push the game to overtime, but they couldn’t get the ball out of their own territory. The Owls ran on a majority of key plays. Wallace said the conservative play calling was a result of lack of confidence in his passing game.
He added that missed opportunities earlier in the game kept the Owls out of the win column.
“I didn’t particularly want to go to overtime. I wanted to win in regulation,” he said. “We had an opportunity to end drives and they stalled. Fichter comes up with a big interception, we get great field position, and we did nothing with it. The opening kickoff of the third quarter, that’s a bad kick and we get a lucky break. The ball stays in bounds and we recover, do nothing with it.”
After a two-game homestand, the Owls hit the road for a matchup with Bowling Green. Usually, a 1-2 record isn’t all that threatening, but a 70-16 drubbing by the Falcons last season at the Linc certainly will have the Owls on alert.
On Saturday, the visiting Falcons were ripped by Boise State, 48-20. The Falcons, who finished last season 9-3, committed fewer turnovers and penalties than the Broncos, but were outgained, 546 yards to 304. Boise State controlled the ball for close to 38 minutes, allowing them to run an unreal 90 plays from scrimmage.
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.