ANNAPOLIS,Maryland — The scene was almost identical.
When the final whistle blew on Tuesday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, the Owls went over to their band and sang the Temple alma mater. They had done the same thing in the same spot three weeks before after beating Navy in the American Athletic Conference Championship game.
There were two major differences on Tuesday. Instead of jumping in the stands and celebrating a conference championship, the Temple players stood quietly mourning a 34-26 loss to Wake Forest University in the Military Bowl. And when the Owls gathered after the game, coach Matt Rhule was not with them.
“It pains me right now, like I cannot describe because I know once it settles in it will only get worse,” interim head coach Ed Foley said. “It is really disappointing to me knowing how close we came in this game.”
Rhule took the head coaching job at Baylor University three days after the conference championship game. Temple also didn’t have its entire defensive coaching staff leading up to the game, but players were reluctant to say it factored into the game. Temple (10-4) was playing for a chance to become the winningest team in program history, and that was the team’s focus over the past three weeks.
The Owls reached the 10-win mark in 1979 and tied it again last year when they lost to the University of Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl with a chance at 11 wins. Temple hasn’t won a bowl game since the 2011 New Mexico Bowl under former coach Steve Addazio.
Early on, Temple looked like the team that rolled through nationally ranked Navy to earn a Top 25 ranking of its own in early December.
Junior defensive back Sean Chandler intercepted Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford on the third offensive play of the game. On the next play, senior quarterback Phillip Walker tossed a 48-yard pass to junior wide receiver Adonis Jennings, who made an over-the-shoulder catch for the first touchdown of the game less than two minutes in.
Then things changed.
Temple’s defense, which had held it past five opponents to an average of 6.6 points per game, began to break down for the first time in months. Wolford threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Cam Serigne, who was wide open after streaking down the middle of the field, to tie the game with 8:37 left in the first quarter. It sparked 31 straight points for Wake Forest.
Sophomore wide receiver Tabari Hines scored a 20-yard touchdown on a bubble screen minutes later. Chandler muffed a punt at the Owls’ 12-yard line in the beginning of the second quarter, which set up a touchdown run by freshman running back Cade Carney to put Wake Forest up 21-7 with 12:26 left in the first half.
The Demon Deacons added 10 points on their next two drives, meanwhile, Temple’s offense stalled after its first possession. The Owls didn’t score until freshman kicker Aaron Boumerhi, who was 4-for-4 in the game, made a 45-yard field goal with four seconds left in the second half.
“A few mistakes,” Walker said. “Bad plays on first down, you know, we had negative plays as a team. So at the end of day, we’ve got to have positive plays on first down to get the thing moving.”
Walker dislocated one of the knuckles on his throwing hand in the first quarter after getting tackled and jamming his hand into someone’s helmet. Walker said he couldn’t squeeze his right hand, but he popped the knuckle back into place and completed 28-of-49 passes for 396 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was never a question in his mind that he wasn’t going to play the rest of the game,” Foley said. “Phillip Walker is one of the toughest players that you will ever see in your life.”
Boumerhi’s field goal was the first of 19 straight points for Temple. Walker hit Jennings on a 58-yard touchdown pass on the third play of the third quarter to make it 31-17.
Wolford left the game on Wake Forest’s first drive in the third quarter after he landed on his head. Redshirt-freshman Kyle Kearns relieved him at quarterback for the rest of the game. After completing his first three attempts to move down to the Owls’ 26-yard line, Kearns threw an interception to sophomore defensive back Delvon Randall in the back of the end zone. Temple capitalized on the turnover with a field goal drive to make it 31-20.
Temple’s defense allowed 106 total yards in the second half.
“I think that everybody just nutted up and realized we came out here for one reason and that was to become the greatest team ever and and to leave our impression on the college football framework,” senior defensive lineman Averee Robinson said. “I think we did that in the second half, but in the first half we just didn’t show up and we were worried about too much things outside of just having fun, which is the big thing with football. If you’re not having fun, you’re not gonna play good.”
Boumerhi added a 32-yard field goal with 9:36 left in the game to make it a one-possession contest. After a defensive stand, the Owls started their drive with 7:35 left in the fourth quarter trailing by eight points with a chance to tie the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion. Temple got to the Wake Forest 6-yard line after a pass interference penalty on senior defensive back Brad Watson.
On second and goal, Walker got sacked for a 22-yard loss. The Owls settled for another field goal to cut Temple’s deficit to five with 3:56 left. The Owls’ defense needed to make one stop to give the offense a final chance.
Wake Forest’s special teams unit had other ideas. Senior defensive back John Armstrong returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards before redshirt-senior defensive back Nate Hairston pushed him out of bounds. The Demon Deacons kicked a field goal three plays later for their only points of the second half.
Temple had good field position for its final drive after a 48-yard kickoff return by freshman wide receiver Isaiah Wright. Walker’s pass on 4th-and-3 and the team’s hopes of completing a comeback fell to the turf.
Owen McCue and Evan Easterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TTN_Sports.