The Owls survived a fourth-quarter comeback from Miami (Ohio) to win their seventh straight game. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Chester Stewart started under center, but the formula remained the same, handing off to freshman Bernard Pierce.
It was a scene all too common the last three seasons.
The football team held a halftime lead and nursed that lead into the fourth quarter, only to see a sure victory snatched from its hands in the final moments.
But one thing has changed this season – the finish.
With a late comeback victory at Navy and a last-second field goal Thursday night, the Owls finally understand how to close out wins.
“I kept telling the staff and kept telling the guys that if you want to be a good team and you want have one of these streaks, there’s going to be games like this in there, and I just didn’t know when they were going to be,” coach Al Golden said. “I’m so proud of our team for the way they responded.”
The Owls led 21-13 at halftime and 31-13 after three quarters against 1-8 Miami (Ohio) Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field and seemed to be in cruise control to their seventh straight win.
However, the RedHawks made a furious, fourth-quarter dash, scoring 19 unanswered points to take a 32-31 lead with less than three minutes remaining.
The 2006-2008 Owls would have never recovered.
But 2009 is a different story.
Freshly named starting quarterback redshirt sophomore Chester Stewart and freshman running back Bernard Pierce drove the Owls down the field, paving the way for freshman kicker Brandon McManus. McManus’ chip shot 18-yard field goal with three seconds remaining gave the Owls a 34-32 win and improved them to 7-2 overall and 5-0 in the Mid-American Conference.
“Bernard got us down there, and my offensive line, snapper and holder did a great job,” McManus said. “I just wanted to win this for the seniors because of all the hard work they’ve gone through over the four years.”
While the upperclassmen have endured the pain and punch lines during their careers, it’s clear the underclassmen are contributing to the team’s success.
And it starts with Pierce.
Pierce wasn’t able to reach the 200-yard plateau for the third straight week, instead settling for just 178 yards on the ground. Pierce, already Temple’s freshman rushing leader, has rushed for more than 100 yards in six of his last seven games. Pierce’s three touchdowns Thursday night put him at 14 for the season, one shy of single-season record holder Paul Palmer.
“To have a running back like Bernard, it makes our job so much easier,” sophomore left guard Steve Caputo said. “When he makes big runs, it’s him. He’s just unbelievable. We haven’t had someone like him in a while.”
While Pierce has blossomed into one of the premier rushers in the nation, it’s been the quarterback position that has underachieved this season. With that, Golden decided to make a change.
After watching redshirt junior quarterback Vaughn Charlton complete just five passes for 37 yards with two interceptions at Navy, Golden replaced him with Stewart. Charlton had thrown for nine touchdowns and seven interceptions on the season. Three of those picks came in Temple’s opening-night loss to Villanova.
“We just thought it was time to make a change there,” Golden said. “It was no secret that Vaughn didn’t have a good day last week. Chester’s been really improving. To be honest with you, the team has improved the last couple of weeks, and Chester just went to work. He never complained about not being the starter. He was ready for his opportunity, and we just made the decision.
“We want to control the clock, and we can’t have a quarterback who turns the ball over,” Golden added.
Stewart did just that, completing 6-of-11 passes for 143 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Stewart completed deep passes of 30 and 45 yards and threw a 31-yard pass to sophomore Joe Jones on the final drive that put the Owls in the redzone and set up McManus’ game-winner.
Thursday was Stewart’s first significant action under center this season. He played in six games last season – three of them starts – and threw for 524 yards with four touchdowns and seven interceptions.
“He threw the ball well during the week,” Golden said of Stewart. “He didn’t miss too many [today]. He really threw the ball with confidence.”
Stewart, who was told he would be starting Tuesday after practice, said there was no sense of panic in the huddle after Miami (Ohio) took the lead late in the fourth quarter.
“We were relaxed and knew we had to execute,” he said.
“I think I did pretty well,” Stewart added. “My teammates made it easy for me. The line protected me all day, Bernard opened it up with the run game, and receivers got open so I just had to deliver the ball.”
While the Owls edged out another win, there is definitely more work that needs to be done as they strive for a spot in the MAC Championship in December. The oft-tough defense allowed 426 yards passing by RedHawks freshman quarterback Zac Dysert and fumbled the ball five times.
Nevertheless, times are good for Golden and his team. The Owls travel to Akron to face the 1-7 Zips Friday before they wrap up the regular season with two important games against Kent State and at Ohio – both teams right behind Temple in the MAC East standings.
“I said eight weeks ago after Villanova you got to have fun, you have to enjoy the battle,” Golden said. “Our kids are enjoying the battle now. We’re going to go attack and see how many we can win here.”
Pete Dorchak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.