SOUTH BEND, Ind.—The Owls failed Saturday against Notre Dame.
Freshman Jim Cooper missed two easy field goals and an extra point attempt as he faced, in his words, a “culture shock.” The running game was almost nonexistent as the team’s quarterback had almost twice as many rushing yards as the leading running back, freshman Zaire Williams. The defense allowed the Irish to march down the field on two back-to-back drives as Notre Dame was able to take a 14-0 lead in just two-and-a-half minutes of possession.
“I think we shot ourselves in the foot,” coach Matt Rhule said.
Yet Rhule’s team showed signs of hope in South Bend, Ind. last weekend. In front of a green sea of 80,000-plus spectators, junior Connor Reilly made his collegiate debut against a Notre Dame squad ranked No. 14 in the nation. Although he had no touchdowns, Reilly threw for 228 yards and zero interceptions. In 46 passing attempts, he was sacked just once. Reilly led the Owls inside the 20-yard-line three times in the first half, adding a fourth visit in the second half.
“Connor proved to everybody, in my mind, he’s a competitor,” Rhule said. “He’s out there, running around, getting first downs. He doesn’t take it to the ground. He gets hit. He’s probably a little banged up and he keeps playing. So to throw that many passes and have just one sack, you know what I mean? That’s impressive.”
Perhaps the most impressive moment of the day for Reilly, however, came on an incomplete pass. As the first half came to a close, Reilly threw a Hail Mary from midfield as it nearly rebounded into the hands of an Owl. Reilly’s display of arm strength showed a notable improvement over last year’s starter senior Chris Coyer, and represents the kind of offensive system change Rhule has encouraged since his arrival.
“I was definitely nervous after the first snap, but once the ball hit my hand, I felt good,” Reilly said. “It felt good to get hit, although I’m going to have a lot of bumps and bruises tomorrow.”
If the atmosphere of Notre Dame got to Reilly, he didn’t show it. As the game progressed, the Owls formed a comeback of sorts towards the end of the second quarter as Reilly brought the team within one score of the Irish. His 228 passing yards exceeds any amount from a Temple quarterback last season under former coach Steve Addazio.
“It’s an important thing not to turn the ball over because that leads to lost games, so my one job was to protect the ball,” Reilly said. “I thought I did pretty well as far as distributing. There are a lot of things I need to work on in terms of getting the ball out quicker, but I think overall the offense can move the ball and we did move the ball. We just have to capitalize on our opportunities.”
Coyer, who had 53 total yards in his new position at H-back, said he’s proud of Reilly after making his collegiate debut.
“As a receiver and someone who has been on the sideline for some of those plays, I’ve got a little bit of a perspective that he might not have,” Coyer said. “I’m trying to help him out with anything I can.”
“I think his performance is something he can build off of,” Coyer added. “That’s something that’s going to be great for the team going forward.”
Although Reilly played well, he did not exceed Rhule’s expectations – that’s how the first-year coach thought and hoped his quarterback would perform.
“I just love coaching the kid,” Rhule said. “I’m out there yelling at him on the field, ‘What are you doing?’ And he’s, ‘Yes, sir.’ He’s a winner.”
Equally encouraging is the protection Reilly received during Saturday’s game. Against a defense that included 6-foot-6, 322-pound Stephon Tuitt and 6-foot-3 357-pound senior Louis Nix, Temple’s offensive line held its own, led partly by the strong play of sophomore lineman Kyle Friend.
“I’m pleased,” Rhule said. “I challenged them in the fourth quarter. I thought in the end they started hitting our quarterback, and I was frustrated. But I tell you, they went straight. They got out of what they were doing. They played. They rushed.”
“Nix is a great player,” Rhule added. “Have a ton of respect. I thought [Friend] did a good job. We hopefully neutralized [Nix] a bit. I didn’t realize how big he was until I walked by him. My gracious.”
Reilly also praised the play of Friend as he battled against the Notre Dame defense throughout the game. Rhule said in the week leading up to the game that his team was “probably not sleeping,” thinking about Nix.
“Kyle Friend did a phenomenal job up front,” Reilly said. “I think he got a little help from the guards, but Louis Nix was not a problem for this game.”
Temple has one more game against a currently ranked team this year, a home matchup against No. 9 Louisville on Oct. 5. On Sept. 7, the Owls will welcome Houston to Lincoln Financial Field for the home opener at noon.
There is little denying that Temple failed on Saturday. The team lost to the Fighting Irish 28-6 as they squandered numerous opportunities to get back into the game. The Owls, as Rhule said multiple times in his post-game press conference, “shot themselves in the foot.”
But if there’s one silver lining to Temple’s failure, it is this: A road matchup against a championship caliber Notre Dame team is about as difficult a season opener as any collegiate team can expect. Aside from perhaps the Cardinals matchup later this fall, the Owls kicked off their season with the most difficult game of the 2013 season. It should only get easier from here.
Avery Maehrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AveryMaehrer.