Earlier this month, two days after the Owls lost a heartbreaker at Rutgers, coach Matt Rhule’s phone rang. It was Bill Cosby.
“How are you doing?” Cosby asked the first-year coach.
“I’m doing great,” Rhule replied.
“No seriously, how are you doing?” Cosby said.
“I’m doing great,” Rhule affirmed.
“Well, what pill are you on?” Cosby inquired.
Rhule provided the standup comedian with a similar answer to what he’s been providing the public all season long.
“I came here with a mission in mind – and that’s to build a championship-caliber program,” Rhule said.
The building process remains a lengthy one, as proved by Temple’s 39-36 loss Saturday to No. 15 Central Florida – a defeat that, again, came in heartbreaking fashion during the final seconds of the game.
The Owls battled the Knights throughout all four quarters, as there were 11 total lead changes. Freshman quarterback P.J. Walker threw for a career-high 382 yards and four touchdowns. Sophomore Robby Anderson, who considered transferring in the summer before returning the week before the season opener at Notre Dame, collected 184 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Junior Kenny Harper tallied 77 rushing yards, as the running game stepped up during Temple’s final scoring drive. A goal-line stand by the defense during the third quarter followed with the Owls driving 99 yards for a touchdown.
For all that went right for the Owls, plenty went wrong. With 2 minutes and 4 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, a 7-yard touchdown pass from Walker to senior tight end Chris Parthemore gave Temple a lead. The two-point conversion was successful, and the Owls were up 36-29.
But the lead was short-lived.
UCF redshirt-junior quarterback Blake Bortles quickly drove the Knights downfield in less than a minute. Three straight completions to junior wide receiver Rannell Hall – one for 20 yards, one 8-yarder and one for 12 yards set up what was to follow. Bortles threw the ball deep into the end zone where junior wideout J.J. Worton reached out and made an incredible, one-handed catch for a UCF touchdown. After the extra point, UCF had tied the game 36-36 with a minute remaining.
After a quick three-and-out, the Owls were forced to punt. The Knights started with 19 seconds remaining when a 64-yard pass from Bortles to Hall on the drive’s first play put UCF in position for a game-winning field goal. Shawn Moffitt made the 23-yard kick as time expired. The upset bid was denied, and the Owls fell to the Knights.
“I told you guys I would try to make it exciting this year, and we’ll try to get better, and it certainly is exciting at the end of these games,” Rhule said. “I was hoping that we would come out on the winning end, so obviously I’m completely disappointed. It’s just a shame how that game ended.”
Walker’s 382 passing yards is the third highest total in program history. He also used his legs, rushing for 41 yards and one touchdown.
“It was by far the toughest one to take because we knew we had this game,” Walker said. “Going up against a ranked team, we felt as though we were better than them. We just came up short.”
The Owls have now lost three straight games and have blown second-half leads in each one of them.
“There’s really no way to describe it,” sophomore linebacker Tyler Matakevich said. “Back-to-back weeks we were right there with them. We could have played with anybody. They had some plays here and there, but physically we were there, controlling the line of scrimmage, breaking on balls, and we just came up short. We have to finish.”
After the game, Rhule said he tried to be “real” with his players.
“My job in that room is to say that at some point you’re going to have to listen to what you’re being told,” Rhule said. “I think we have enough players in there who are saying that. You can tell because the guys that are doing what they’re told are playing really well.”
“You can see we’re getting better, and we were close today against the No. 15 team in the country, and for most of the game we were beating them,” Rhule added. “We’ll never win these kinds of games if we don’t have all 11 guys doing what they’re supposed to do at the end of the game.”
Temple will wrap up its home schedule on Saturday against Connecticut, the only other team that remains winless in conference play. The Huskies lost to UCF 62-17 earlier this season.
Although the Owls are now looking ahead to UConn, their most recent loss won’t be completely forgotten anytime soon.
“As much as you try to keep it out, it’s always in the back of your head,” Matakevich said. “We just have to keep fighting, that’s the only thing. We can’t dwell on it, that’s what the offseason is for. That’s going to be our motivation: finishing.”
Avery Maehrer can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @AveryMaehrer.