Owls lose in heartbreaker

Temple fell to Fordham 30-29 in the final seconds of the game.

Three quarterbacks later, Temple still wound up with one of its worst losses in recent memory.

In a  meeting that pitted the FBS Owls against an FCS team in Fordham University, it all ended when senior wide receiver Sam Ajala hauled in a 29-yard pass from junior quarterback Mike Nebrich that, with the ensuing PAT, sent the Owls into the bye week without its first win with a 30-29 defeat at Lincoln Financial Field Saturday.

“I’ll be completely honest, people should take shots at me right now,” coach Matt Rhule said. “They should take shots at us. We shouldn’t have lost that game. Let’s be honest. I’m going to be straight up with you guys, we were better than that team, but they played really good. I respect the heck out of their team.”

“I take responsibility for it,” Rhule added. “What happened a few years ago when this team lost to Villanova, they took responsibility for the way they played. That’s what I have to do as the head coach. I have to take this team and take responsibility for the way they play.”

The deciding play of the game wouldn’t go without controversy, however, as Ajala went out of bounds before he came back into play and made the touchdown catch. The referees maintained that Ajala had been forced out of bounds, and the ensuing challenge on the call came up empty.

“He went out of bounds, but [the referees] said they felt like he was forced out,” Rhule said. “He went out of bounds, but if he was pushed out he can come back and catch the ball.”

Senior quarterback Clinton “Juice” Granger made his first start since last season in place of redshirt-junior Connor Reilly, who was held out this week after sustaining a minor knee injury last week in Temple’s 15-13 loss against the University of Houston.

The impact of Reilly’s absence was felt particularly after Temple’s first two drives ended with Granger turnovers, first on a fumble on fourth-and-six and then on an interception by Fordham junior free safety Levon Williams, who returned it 14 yards to Temple’s 25-yard line.

The latter Granger mistake gave way for a 44-yard field goal from Fordham junior kicker Michael Marando.

Granger would use his legs in Temple’s next drive to get them on the board, as he rushed four times for a total of 26 yards and a touchdown on a one-yard plunge to give Temple the 7-3 lead. Granger went 6-of-15 in passing for 58 yards on the day, and was replaced by freshman P.J. Walker at the start of the second half with the Owls down 13-7.

After Fordham spotted the Temple defense another score later on in the quarter and with the Walker-led offense struggling to gain any kind of traction, Reilly came in under center and injected some life in a previously floundering Owls’ offense.

“I said to Connor, ‘Can you go?’” Rhule said. “And he said yes. He probably wanted to go, but I told him whatever you do, don’t run the football. And he goes out there and runs it in for a touchdown. That’s the shame of the whole thing is that you lose that whole game. But we had guys like that who just went out there and absolutely laid it out on the line as a warrior and that’s what he did.”

Using a combination of short, quick passes and effective scrambles, Reilly helped lead the Owls to two consecutive scores, the latter of which Reilly took in himself from 15 yards out to hand Temple a 21-20 lead early in the fourth quarter.

After a Rams field goal, Temple then added another score when Reilly connected with senior H-back Chris Coyer for a seven-yard touchdown reception, and then converted the two-point conversion thanks to a scramble from Granger in at quarterback for the play.

“The offense responded to myself going into the third quarter,” Reilly said. “We moved the ball. Three straight times we scored a touchdown. That was positive. Other than that, I have nothing.”

At the time, it seemed like the eight-point play would be enough for the Owls to scrape a win.

As a team, Fordham’s offense amassed 520 total yards as opposed to Temple’s 385. Senior Carlton Koonce, originally recruited by Temple, burned the Owls Saturday with 168 yards rushing and a touchdown, while Nebrich racked up 320 yards in the air and passed for two touchdowns.

The loss marked Temple’s first to an FCS team since a 27-24 loss to Villanova in 2009.

“I’m really disappointed and I’m really embarrassed,” Rhule said. “But, I’m in no way discouraged because I see a couple puppies running around out there and they’re making plays, I see what Connor can be and we just have to go back to work. They’re going to hear all the noise—but we’ll hold this team together.”

“We have good coaches and good seniors that will hold the team together and the younger kids will come on,” Rhule added. “At some point I think we’re going to look up and see a really good team. People might not believe that, I don’t know, but I do.”

Drew Parent can be reached at andrew.parent@temple.edu or on Twitter @daParent93.

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