SOUTH BEND, Ind. – With 1:01 to go in the first half, the Owls were in a good place.
After being down 14-0 in what seemed like no time at all, Temple’s defense tightened and had prevented Notre Dame from scoring since the early part of the first quarter. The Owls had finally scored themselves, on a one-yard run by junior running back Kenneth Harper. The Fighting Irish, known for their stout defensive line, only allowed four rushing touchdowns in 2012.
However, the Owls’ momentum was short-lived, as the extra point attempt from freshman Jim Cooper was blocked. On the next play from scrimmage, junior tight end Troy Niklas scored on a 66 yard touchdown reception, putting the Irish up 21-6.
Temple (0-1, 0-0 American Athletic Conference) was never able to close the gap, falling 28-6 to Notre Dame (1-0) in the first game of the season.
“[We] spotted them two touchdowns early,” coach Matt Rhule said. “They got a gimme right before the half, which was obviously good plays by them and just miscommunication by us.”
Junior quarterback Connor Reilly threw for 228 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions in his debut under center, adding 65 rushing yards, which led the team.
“I think Connor fought hard,” senior H-back Chris Coyer said. “He played his heart out today and I’m proud of him. As a receiver and as someone that’s been on the sideline for some of those plays, I’ve got a perspective that he might not have. I’m trying to help him out with anything I can.”
“We left a lot of points on the field, but this team is young,” Reilly said. “That’s where we can build. If we can put those points on the scoreboard, that game is a whole different game. Give credit to Notre Dame. They played a great job, and they beat us straight up.”
Reilly’s counterpart, senior Tommy Rees, threw for a career-high 346 yards, along with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
“He does a great job of taking what’s there and giving it away,” Rhule said. “We had hoped he’d throw the ball to us once or twice, and he didn’t. He had maybe one overthrow… He’s a poised player.”
Cooper struggled in his first game in college, missing both his field goal attempts wide (one from 32 yards and one from 43) and having his only extra point attempt blocked.
“The snap was perfect, hold was perfect, blocking was impeccable,” Cooper said of the kicks. “I just didn’t hit it right. It came down to me and I didn’t make it.”
The game started poorly for the Owls as Notre Dame won the coin toss, received the kickoff and scored a touchdown in three plays. After an illegal substitution penalty moved the Irish back to the 18 yard line, junior running back Amir Carlisle ran for a 45 yard gain on his first collegiate carry. Two plays later, senior quarterback Tommy Rees threw a 32 yard touchdown to junior wide receiver DaVaris Daniels. The drive took 1:26 off the game clock.
After a three-and-out from Temple, Notre Dame took over at their own 13 and scored a touchdown even more quickly, keyed by a 51 yard pass to senior wide receiver TJ Jones and another 32 yard touchdown pass from Rees to Daniels. The drive took 73 seconds and had the Irish up 14-0 with 9:06 left in the first quarter.
Temple and Notre Dame traded punts before the Owls had their first sustained drive of the game, advancing 65 yards on 10 plays to the Notre Dame 15. Freshman kicker Jim Cooper missed his first career field goal attempt, hitting the 32 yard attempt wide right as the first quarter expired.
After a Notre Dame punt, Temple drove down the field again before being stalled at Notre Dame’s 26. Cooper again missed a field goal wide right, this time a 43 yard attempt. The Irish took over and went 49 yards in three plays before stalling. Graduate kicker Nick Tausch missed a 39 yard attempt short, and the Owls took over at their own 22.
Temple then put together its first scoring drive, going 78 yards in nine plays. The drive started with a 26 yard pass from Reilly to senior wide receiver Ryan Alderman and concluded with a one yard touchdown run by junior running back Kenneth Harper. Cooper’s bad luck continued when his extra point attempt was blocked.
Still, Temple had pulled to within a score, but Notre Dame quickly put an end to that when Rees threw a pass across the middle to junior tight end Troy Nicklas that went for a 66 yard touchdown. Temple was unable to score in the ensuing 43-second drive, and Notre Dame was up 21-6 at halftime.
The Owls received the second-half kickoff and began the drive at their own 41 after a 39 yard return from junior wide receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick. Temple had first and goal at Notre Dame’s 6 yard line, but Reilly threw four straight incomplete passes, including a fourth down attempt.
Notre Dame took over and went 94 yards, culminating in a two yard touchdown run by junior running back George Atkinson. After a Temple three-and-out, Notre Dame drove 42 yards down the field, only for junior kicker Kyle Brindza to miss a 44 yard attempt wide left with 14:50 left in the fourth quarter. The next four drives, two for each team, ended in punts.
The Owls took over with 8:30 to go, still down 28-6. They drove down to the Notre Dame 33 yard line, but were unable to convert on fourth and four. Notre Dame punted on the ensuing drive, but Fitzpatrick muffed the punt and Notre Dame recovered at Temple’s 18. Notre Dame used the possession to run the clock out.
The Owls take on Houston on Saturday, Sept. 7 at noon at Lincoln Financial Field.
Evan Cross can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @EvanCross.