Temple University’s special teams unit came through when the Owls (7-4, 6-1 The American) needed it most.
Junior wide receiver Isaiah Wright returned a punt 73 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in the Owls’ 27-17 win against South Florida (7-4, 3-4 American Athletic Conference) on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.
“I feel like we have the best special teams coordinator in the nation,” graduate student wide receiver Ventell Bryant said. “All those plays that he draws up gives us a chance to flip the field, get a game-changing play to uplift the offense or the defense.”
On the go-ahead touchdown, Wright fielded the ball, saw a lane to the outside and sprinted down the left sideline to give Temple the lead with 10 minutes, five seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Redshirt-freshman cornerback Ty Mason threw a key block, Wright said. He scored his second punt return touchdown of the season. Wright’s other punt return score came on Oct. 6 against East Carolina.
Wright muffed a punt in the first half. The play led to a USF field goal, but he didn’t let it discourage him, he said.
“It just feels good to know that I helped my team to be in a position to finish out the game, and that’s just most important to me and I just want to be able to contribute,” Wright said.
“It was just the timing of when it happened,” said USF junior running back Jordan Cronkrite, who ran for two touchdowns. “Obviously, they had the muffs, but the pivotal point of the game was when they had the special teams touchdown. But you have to win all three phases of the game, offense, defense and special teams, and we definitely did not do that today.”
Temple pulled off another key special teams play after Wright’s score. Instead of kicking the ball deep on the ensuing kickoff, the Owls attempted their second onside kick of the half.
Trailing 17-0 at halftime, they tried a surprise onside kick to start the third quarter. Redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Branden Mack recovered redshirt freshman Will Mobley’s kick, but because USF called for a fair catch, the officials called kick catch interference on the Owls.
On the attempt after Wright’s touchdown, Mobley kicked a line drive, which removed the possibility of a fair catch, instead of lofting the ball in the air. The ball hit USF senior linebacker Jeffery Farrar and caromed to freshman linebacker DaeSean Winston, who fell on the loose ball.
The original call was for a traditional squib kick, Mobley said. The Owls practiced the line drive onside kick leading up to their game against Navy on Oct. 13, but they hadn’t practiced it since then, he added.
“I saw the guy was close to the middle, I thought, ‘Why not try to hit him?’” Mobley said. “Because if I miss, it’s just a regular squib. So it worked out for us.”
“The one when he hit the upback, that was kind of surprising,” USF senior defensive back Ronnie Hoggins Jr. said. “We haven’t seen that one yet, but that was a new one they pulled out. But we knew what type of team they were on the [special] teams.”
Temple didn’t get a first down on the ensuing drive, which ended with the Bulls stopping senior running back Ryquell Armstead on fourth down. But the Owls chewed 1:50 off the clock after Winston’s recovery.
The Owls’ second-half special teams successes compensated for their first-half miscues.
On fourth-and-9 in the second quarter, Temple ran a fake punt. Redshirt-freshman quarterback Todd Centeio threw a pass intended for junior wide receiver Randle Jones that USF sophomore cornerback Mike Hampton nearly intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
In the first quarter, the Owls moved the ball 57 yards downfield with the help of four passes of 10 yards or more by redshirt-sophomore quarterback Anthony Russo. But the drive ended without points. Mobley’s 29-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright.
Temple immediately forced a three-and-out, but Wright’s muff gave the Bulls the ball back. Temple remained scoreless for the rest of the first half.
The Owls scored 27 consecutive points in the second half on a rushing touchdown by Armstead, two field goals, Wright’s return and a fumble recovery in the end zone by redshirt-junior linebacker Chapelle Russell.
The comeback continued the Owls’ trend of unconventional scoring. They entered play with the Football Bowl Subdivision lead in defensive and non-offensive touchdowns. Temple recorded its sixth defensive touchdown, and it scored its 10th and 11th non-offensive touchdowns.
The Owls scored touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams in a single game for the second time this season.
Temple will close the regular season on the road against Connecticut next Saturday. UConn (1-9, 0-6 The American) entered Saturday’s action on a seven-game losing streak.