Temple caught a break when Florida International University junior running back Napoleon Maxwell dropped a ball in the third quarter.
Maxwell had open space in front of him on a third-and-5 play from the Owls’ 10-yard line. Had he caught the ball, the Golden Panthers would’ve likely scored the game-tying touchdown.
Instead, Florida International (8-5, 5-3 Conference USA) settled for a field goal before Temple (7-6, 4-4 American Athletic Conference) overcame first-and-30 and scored a touchdown in its 28-3 win in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida on Thursday.
Temple won its first bowl game since 2011, and its seniors won their 33rd game to extend their lead as the winningest class in school history. The Owls are now 3-4 in bowl games all-time. They’ve been bowl eligible for four straight seasons, but they hadn’t won a bowl until Thursday.
“My senior year, finally getting that last one, finally going out on a high note, getting that trophy and bringing it home means the world to me,” said redshirt-senior defensive lineman Sharif Finch, who had four tackles and a sack, in a phone interview.
Redshirt-junior quarterback Frank Nutile won the game’s MVP award. He completed 18-of-28 attempts for 254 yards and a touchdown, a 45-yard connection with sophomore wideout Isaiah Wright in the final quarter. Nutile’s most-targeted receivers were Wright and redshirt senior Keith Kirkwood, who led the Owls with six catches for 96 yards in his final college game.
“[Nutile’s] a great guy,” said redshirt-junior running back David Hood, who averaged 5.4 yards per carry and scored a touchdown, in a phone interview. “He’s a great leader, and he helps us follow behind him. So everything he does, he’s a very charismatic leader and it just gets the guys behind him and that’s what we feed off of.”
Nutile also had one of Temple’s three rushing touchdowns, a 4-yard run in the second quarter. His run accounted for Temple’s only first-half score. The Owls went for fourth-down conversions on fourth-and-2 twice and failed both times in the first 30 minutes.
Temple’s defense recorded 10 tackles for loss and seven sacks in its season finale. The Owls’ sack total set a new record in the 10-year history of the Gasparilla Bowl, which is formerly known as the St. Petersburg Bowl and Beef O’Brady’s Bowl.
Junior safety Delvon Randall and sophomore linebacker Sam Franklin each had a team-high seven tackles. Sophomore linebacker William Kwenkeu had a team-high two sacks. He didn’t have any sacks this season before Thursday.
Franklin and Kwenkeu combined for 13 tackles and three sacks.
“They made incredible strides today,” Finch said. “It just shows how bright our future is.”
Florida International entered the game seeking its ninth win, which would have been a program best. The team hadn’t played in a bowl since the 2011 Beef O’Brady’s Bowl, which it lost. Temple coach Geoff Collins served as the defensive coordinator when the Golden Panthers last won a bowl in the 2010 Little Caesars Bowl.
The Golden Panthers recorded a program-record 63 points and 674 total yards in their regular-season finale on Dec. 2 against the University of Massachusetts, which Temple also beat this season. The Golden Panthers finished with 257 total yards Thursday. They had 88 rushing yards, just three more than their season-low.
Against the Minutemen, senior quarterback Alex McGough threw 20-for-25 for 295 yards and three touchdowns. The Golden Panthers’ all-time leader in touchdown passes sustained a collarbone injury on his team’s first drive of the game and didn’t return. McGough, a native of nearby Tampa, Florida, whose younger brother Shane McGough is the starting center, had a large contingent of family and friends at the game.
Florida International also played the game without senior wideout Thomas Owens, who led the team with 887 receiving yards during the regular season.
Sophomore backup quarterback Maurice Alexander threw interceptions on two of his first four attempts. Alexander finished 16-for-33 passing for 162 yards and two interceptions.
“It kind of threw our game plan out the window having a totally different quarterback back there,” Finch said. “He’s extremely mobile. He’s a talented guy. He’s a fast guy. So we had to switch our game plan to more so containing him.”
He had his best success running tempo offense to lead his team to two field-goal attempts. Redshirt-freshman kicker Jose Borregales went 1-for-2, missing a 43-yarder with 5:35 left in the second quarter.
Temple averaged 68 penalty yards per game entering the Gasparilla Bowl and had 86 on Thursday. The two teams combined for 16 penalties to set a new bowl record.
The Owls’ second touchdown drive materialized despite two penalties setting up the Owls with first-and-30. They gained the necessary yardage on the next two plays. Then senior wideout Adonis Jennings caught a ball while laying on the ground after being tackled by senior cornerback Brad Muhammad to move the ball to the 1-yard line.
Adonis Jennings got tackled and still made the catch pic.twitter.com/N6TG8HR2Y9
— Dr. Saturday (@YahooDrSaturday) December 22, 2017
Hood scored two plays later. He finished with 76 yards on 14 carries before leaving the game with an injury in the fourth quarter due getting horse-collar tackled as he ran out of bounds. Hood said he felt pain in his ankle and his foot, but he felt better after the game.
On his touchdown, he dove over the line of scrimmage and extended the ball over the goal line.
“That was last resort,” Hood said. “I just got the ball and I saw penetration, so I just made the decision and went with it. They gave me the touchdown, and I was proud.”
Temple’s win ensured it would avoid its first sub-.500 season since the 2013 campaign, former coach Matt Rhule’s first season. The Owls have high hopes for the future.
“Next year we’re going to come different,” Randall said last week. “We’re used to the coaches and things like that. The coaches trust us now. They know who to play. They know who not to play, things like that. So next year, we’re looking for another [American Athletic Conference] championship and maybe the Cotton Bowl.”