Several components of senior quarterback Phillip Walker’s last second touchdown pass didn’t go as planned on Saturday night.
Before the play, redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Brodrick Yancy had to help redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Ventell Bryant, who made three catches to get the Owls’ to Central Florida’s 8-yard line, off the ground to avoid a 10-second runoff that might have ended the game.
The offensive line had some confusion about the play call and thought the Owls would spike the ball to stop the clock, Walker said. He added that redshirt-junior wide receiver Keith Kirkwood was the only player who ran a route on the final play.
Despite the less than ideal situation, Walker’s 8-yard lob found Kirkwood in the back of the end zone for the game-winning score. The final offensive play turned out to be the difference between Temple losing its second straight American Athletic Conference game or moving into second place in the East Division.
“That’s my first time ever being in such a hostile environment toward the end of a game, but it was great to come out with the victory,” Kirkwood said. “But now we’re focused on [South Florida].”
The Owls, who returned to Philadelphia around 4 a.m. Sunday, have a short week of preparation for their Friday night matchup against East Division leading South Florida at Lincoln Financial Field. The Bulls are undefeated in three conference games and off to a 6-1 start, tying their starts in the 2007 and 2008 season for best in school history. South Florida’s 44.1 points per game is eighth in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Coach Matt Rhule called South Florida the best team his squad will face so far, and said he is excited for a meaningful game in October. He added that junior defensive back Sean Chandler will not play, but his team should be “at or near full strength.”
The Bulls own the No. 8 rushing offense in the FBS, averaging 268.4 yards per game. In their win Saturday against Connecticut, then the 11th best rushing defense in the FBS, the Bulls rushed for a season-high 316 yards.
The Owls’ defense held Central Florida scoreless for more than 42 minutes on Saturday to allow the offense to come back from a 25-7 second quarter deficit. That might not be as feasible against South Florida, which gets better as the game progresses. The Bulls are outscoring opponents 245-121 in the final three quarters.
Walker believes the Owls’ defense, ranked in the Top 20 in yards per game allowed, is hitting its stride.
“That’s one of our goals is to have fourth quarter shutouts and put up points in the fourth quarter,” Walker said. “So, we’ve got to do better at that. I think we have. We did a really good job last week, so I think all that is going to lead into this week.”
Junior quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack lead the Bulls’ dynamic offense. Mack and Flowers are second and third respectively in rushing yards per game in The American. The pair have combined to score 29 of the team’s 42 touchdowns.
Flowers can also throw the ball well. His 13 passing touchdowns are tied for 27th most in the FBSI and his 148 passing efficiency rating ranks 31st. Junior running back D’Ernest Johnson, whose nine total touchdowns ranks third among players in The American, has been one of Flowers’ favorite targets. Four of Johnson’s 17 catches have gone for touchdowns. He also has four receiving touchdowns and a punt return for a score.
Temple is familiar with what South Florida’s offensive capabilities. The Bulls rushed for 326 yards and gained 556 total yards of offense in their win against the Owls on Nov. 14, 2015. Flowers threw two touchdowns and ran for one, while Mack ran for 230 yards and scored three touchdowns.
Flowers earned The American’s Offensive Player of the Week award for the second time this season for his five-touchdown performance against Connecticut.
“He’s probably one of the top tailbacks in the country and one of the top quarterbacks in the country,” Rhule said of Flowers. “They line up in empty [backfield formations], and they call run plays and throw routes way down the field. If you try to rush him he makes everybody miss, I mean he’s like he’s dynamic …Then they have Marlon, and they have a bunch of other great players too.”
Temple has won three of its last four games and the defense has held opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing twice in that span. Despite overall success, Phil Snow’s unit has struggled with big plays, conceding 13 plays of 20 yards or more in that span including five against Central Florida.
“Great performances last two weeks, but we’re giving up big plays and if you’re giving up big plays you can’t win,” Rhule said. “That’s the last hurdle to become a better defense than we’ve had here in the last three years. That’s the last hurdle. If we can get rid of the big plays, then we can be a special team.”
Evan Easterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.