WASHINGTON, D.C. – Not playing in a bowl game for 30 years showed in the first half.
The football team came out with a burst of energy and scored on its first drive of the game and on two drives late in the second quarter.
However, a dreadful second half led to UCLA scoring the final 23 points of the game and beating Temple, 30-21, in the 2009 EagleBank Bowl Tuesday night at RFK Stadium.
“[I’m] obviously disappointed in the outcome, but I don’t want that to diminish what these seniors have accomplished in their careers,” Temple coach Al Golden said. “It was an unfortunate ending, but you’ve got to give credit to UCLA for how they finished the game. I thought we had an excellent plan. I thought we came out with a lot of energy and a lot of passion. I thought we were up for the fight.”
Temple, playing in its first bowl game since defeating California in the Garden State Bowl in 1979, came out energized after not playing a game since falling to Ohio Nov. 27.
The Owls opened the game by marching 80 yards down the field on six plays and capped it off with redshirt junior quarterback Vaughn Charlton’s 26-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end Steve Maneri.
After Temple was forced to punt on its next drive, the Bruins needed just one play to tie up the game. Freshman quarterback Kevin Prince hit sophomore receiver Nelson Rosario down the sideline for a 46-yard touchdown pass.
The game stayed tied at seven until fewer than four minutes remained in the first half. Temple marched down the field for an eight-play, 75-yard drive with freshman running Bernard Pierce, who rushed for an 11-yard touchdown run.
On UCLA’s next possession, junior defensive back Marquise Liverpool intercepted Prince. Liverpool returned the interception 23 yards, and then referees tacked on a 15-yard personal foul penalty on a facemask to put the Owls at UCLA’s 15-yard line. Four plays later, freshman running Matt Brown ran it in from two yards out to give the Owls a 21-7 lead.
With 17 seconds remaining in the first half, it seemed like the Owls would head to the locker room with a 14-point lead. The Bruins took over at their own 45-yard line, and Prince completed consecutive passes of 14 yards and 19 yards. Those passes set up junior kicker Kai Forbath’s 40-yard field goal as time expired to cut the Temple lead to 21-10 at halftime.
That seemed to be the momentum that UCLA needed for the second half.
“We just went into the locker room at halftime and cleaned up our mistakes that we were making,” sophomore linebacker Akeem Ayers said.
The Bruins got the ball to begin the second half and made the decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Owls’ 32-yard line. Prince hit senior receiver Terrence Austin, who tiptoed down the far sideline for a 32-yard touchdown cutting Temple’s lead to 21-17.
Temple’s best chance to put points on the board in the second half came on its first drive. The Owls started from their own 32-yard line and threatened inside UCLA’s 20. On fourth-and-inches, Golden elected to go for it instead of attempting a field goal to put the Owls ahead by a touchdown. The UCLA defense stuffed Brown short of the first-down marker, and Temple turned the ball over on downs.
Temple still led by four points entering the fourth quarter until Forbath nailed a 42-yarder to cut Temple’s once comfortable lead down to one. After both teams punted on their next drives, tragedy struck the Owls.
Charlton, who was benched after the Oct. 31 Navy game in favor of redshirt sophomore Chester Stewart, was the surprise starter Tuesday night. Charlton made Golden’s decision look genius after one half. He was 12-for-16 for 153 yards and a touchdown at halftime.
But with Temple ahead 21-20 and facing a third-and-21 at its own 8-yard line, Charlton tried to dump off a pass to Joe Jones. The pass did not have enough air under it, and Ayers picked off the pass and returned it for a 2-yard touchdown.
“It was a passing down, so I tried to get a good burst off the ball to get to the quarterback,” Ayers said. “As soon as I took off, I slipped, and the first thing that came to my mind was to scramble to my feet and get up and try to put myself back in the play. As soon as I got up, I was in a position to make a play.”
Charlton’s second half stat line: 1-for-7 for six yards and two interceptions.
The final nail in the coffin came on Temple’s next drive. Temple’s punt attempt went south, as the snap flew over senior punter Jake Brownell’s head and into the end zone for a safety. UCLA went ahead 30-21, got the ball back due to the safety and ran out the clock.
“We played a very good second half against a very good team,” UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. “We knew we were going to be playing a top-flight program. We’re elated that we have the trophy to go home with.”
“We made too many mistakes,” Golden added. “They beat us soundly in the kicking game, both in punting and returns. We didn’t make good decisions in the return game. We didn’t convert enough on offense on third down. We didn’t really make enough big plays in the second half on offense. And on defense we got worn out because of it.
“We didn’t execute, and that’s the bottom line.”
Regardless of Tuesday’s outcome, the bottom line is that the Owls had a very successful season.
After opening the season with two losses, the Owls strung off nine consecutive wins. Their win total is the most since 1979, and they finished 7-1 in the Mid-American Conference.
“It’s definitely come a long way,” senior defensive back Dominique Harris said. “We’ve been through a lot together. We wish we could have won this game, but we had a successful season. That came from a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears.”
The Owls also found themselves a running back of the present and for the next couple seasons. Pierce stormed onto the scene early in the season and finished the season as a Freshman All-American. He set Temple records for 100-yard rushing games (six), rushing touchdowns (16) and yards (1,361).
Pierce left Tuesday’s game late in the second quarter with the same shoulder injury that sidelined him for the final two games of the season. He left with 53 yards, and his rushing touchdown allowed him to pass Paul Palmer and Walter Washington as Temple’s record holder for rushing touchdowns in a season.
“Unfortunate,” Golden said of Pierce’s injury. “He was running well, and obviously, when he and Matt are in the offense, not only is the running game working inside and outside but the play action off of it is working.
“Bernard needs an offseason program, needs to get stronger,” Golden added. “He needs to go through that, and first, we’ll get him healed up, and we’ll go from there.”
In addition to Pierce, sophomore defensive end Adrian Robinson was named MAC Defensive Player of the Year, and Golden earned MAC Coach of the Year honors. Freshman kicker Brandon McManus set Temple’s record for points scored in a season. His three extra points Tuesday put him at 96 points, one better than Don Bitterlich’s 95 points in 1975.
“I’m proud of our guys the way we’ve grown up,” Golden said. “Every game we come to play. Every game we’re competitive, we bring energy, we’re excited, we have a good game plan, we have a good design, [and] our guys are ready to go.”
While Golden admits that this loss will take some time to get over, he is optimistic about the future of the program – one that started just six seniors Tuesday – and ready for bigger and better things.
“In a lot of ways, some of our best players are young players,” Golden said. “We’re excited about the direction we’re going. We need to fill a couple of places here and there, develop some other guys, and we need to move forward. We’re excited about the direction of our program. I know the guys are going to get some confidence that they’ll be able to carry into next year.”
Pete Dorchak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.