Sophomore running back Bernard Pierce’s performance helped beat UConn, 30-16.
Every time the football team has faced Connecticut under coach Al Golden, the game has ended in heartbreak. That wasn’t the case Saturday when the Owls beat the Huskies, 30-16.
Three years ago, the Owls traveled to East Hartford and seemingly defeated the Huskies before an official ruled that then-junior wide receiver Bruce Francis did not catch a last-second touchdown inbounds. Instant replay showed that Francis seemed to have made the catch, but the result stood. The next year, the Huskies traveled to Lincoln Financial Field, where they defeated the Owls, 12-9, in overtime after a run by then-senior wide receiver Travis Shelton was called back on a holding call.
With all that in mind, the team surely had some added motivation going into this week’s matchup. On top of that, the Owls were looking for their first 3-0 start since 1979.
Entering halftime, it didn’t look like the Owls would have much to celebrate. Sure, they had a 7-6 lead, but UConn had moved the ball at will against the Temple defense. The Huskies racked up 245 yards of total offense in the first 30 minutes, including 156 rushing yards. Temple’s defense was essentially in bend-but-don’t-break mode, as it gave up two long UConn drives but held the Huskies to a field goal on both tries. Those missed opportunities came back to hurt the Huskies, UConn coach Randy Edsall said.
“Offensively, when we got the ball down to the field position that we did, we didn’t take advantage of it and didn’t make plays,” Edsall said. “That’s just fundamentals and execution, and guys not doing what they’re supposed to be doing … When you don’t execute and you don’t take advantage of the field position, that hurts you.”
At halftime, the Owls had only accumulated 135 yards of total offense with a mere 28 yards coming from the rushing game. Sophomore running back Bernard Pierce had 29 yards on eight carries as the Owls entered the half, and he was more of a factor in the passing game, where he had a 27-yard touchdown reception.
Shortly after the half, UConn junior running back Jordan Todman put the Huskies ahead, 13-7, when he broke free for a 59-yard touchdown run with 14 minutes, 6 seconds left in the third quarter.
Then everything changed.
The Owls reverted to the 2009 version of their offense in the second half and relied heavily on the shoulders of Pierce. The 6-foot Ardmore, Pa., native ran the ball 18 times for 140 yards in the second half, including two touchdown runs. The 169 yards Pierce compiled in the game were the most since his 178-yard performance against Miami-Ohio on Nov. 5 last year.
“Pierce started to take over, and I was reluctant to take him out,” Golden said. “It turned into an in-between-the-tackles game … He took a couple of hits, and I’m real proud of the way he performed.”
Despite Pierce’s performance, the Owls trailed, 16-14, going into the fourth quarter after a 47-yard field goal by UConn junior placekicker Dave Teggart.
Junior defensive end Adrian Robinson tipped the momentum back in Temple’s favor with 8:28 remaining in the fourth quarter. During a rush by Todman, Robinson stripped the ball and ran into the end zone uncontested, to give the Owls a 20-14 lead.
“I saw [senior linebacker Elijah Joseph] grabbed [Todman], and I just saw the ball looked loose,” Robinson said. “I ripped it out, and it was just ‘Murder She Wrote’ from there.”
While he might have been the player who scored the go-ahead touchdown, the entire team deserved credit for the turnaround, Robinson added.
“It was a good play, but the plays afterward that my teammates made were even bigger plays,” Robinson said. “Bernard on some of his touchdowns was phenomenal … I think my teammates did most of the work.”
“When you finish plays, good things happen,” Golden added. “We’ve been on the other side of that play so many times.”
After halftime, the Owls limited Connecticut’s offense to 145 total yards in the second half.
“I wanted to tell the guys, ‘Just keep attacking. This is a really good team we’re playing here,’” Golden said. “I wanted them to have some poise and understand that the game is going to be won or lost in the fourth quarter.”
Another touchdown run by Pierce and a 32-yard field goal from sophomore placekicker Brandon McManus sealed the deal for the Owls.
The main difference between Saturday’s performance and past game against UConn was the depth of the Owls, Golden said.
“I think we are a Division-I team now,” Golden said. “I don’t know the final count, but I bet you we played 56 people in the game. We lost a lot of tough games as we were growing up [and that was] because of a lot of things – but also because we were tired.”
Redshirt-junior quarterback Chester Stewart, who finished 11-of-21 for 159 yards and a touchdown, has yet to throw an interception this year. The extra ball security has made things easier, Stewart said.
“Not turning over the ball gives us a better chance at winning,” Stewart said. “That’s what I’ve worked on from last year to now. I think it’s helping this team win a little bit.”
The win marked the first time the Owls defeated a team from a Bowl Conference Subdivision conference under Golden. The win could have a lasting effect on the Owls, Stewart said.
“It gives us more confidence,” Stewart said. “It’s definitely a good win to knock off a team from a different [conference], but we expected to do that going into the game. We practiced hard this week, so it really gives us more confidence going into next week.”
“It’s a big win because we’re 3-0, and because it was against a real physical opponent,” Golden added.
The Owls will look to use that confidence next week when they face Penn State. The Owls have been outscored, 31-6 in 2009 and 45-3 in 2008, in their last two trips to State College. Those results should have no effect on this year’s matchup, Stewart said.
“They’ve been whooping us for the past couple of years, and I know that’s probably in the back of some of my teammates’ heads, but we’re a different team now,” Stewart said. “We can play with them. We just need to play our game and execute.”
Kyle Gauss can be reached at email@example.com.