Just looking at the box score, Temple University football played one of their worst games of the season on Saturday. The Owls (1-6, 1-6 The American Athletic Conference) scored just three points against East Carolina (2-6, 2-5 The American), a team ranked ninth in the AAC, netting just 235 yards on offense while giving up four touchdowns on defense.
But having watched the game, it’s impossible to walk away without a sense of admiration for Owls’ younger players, who played their hearts out despite facing multiple setbacks during the game.
Between COVID-19 protocols, injuries and suspensions, the Owls were without at least 15 players against the Pirates. That was far from the most bizarre part of Temple’s matchup against ECU.
The madness began when freshman quarterback Kamal Gray was announced as the starting quarterback 30 minutes prior to kickoff. Freshman quarterback Matt Duncan was named the starter on Monday, but Carey suspended Duncan “indefinitely” for a “violation of team rules” on Saturday night, he said.
With Temple’s other three quarterbacks out with injuries or in COVID-19 protocol, Gray became the fifth quarterback to take a snap for the Owls this season. Gray found out he would be starting the game at 8:40 a.m., he said.
“I woke up for breakfast around 8:10, and I knew I had a meeting at 8:50,” Gray added. “I got a call, and they asked me to come down 10 minutes early. It was coach [Craig] Harmon, coach [Mike] Uremovich and coach Carey in a room. They told me I was starting the game.”
Adding to the absurdity, graduate student wide receiver Branden Mack served as the team’s backup quarterback and played two series to begin the second half, raising the total number of quarterbacks used this season to six.
The surprise suspension of a fourth string quarterback would typically be the biggest story of the day, but it was only the beginning. Kickoff was scheduled for noon, but there wasn’t a single player on the field by 12:10 p.m.
An uneasy feeling crept through the press box, which was quickly followed by an announcement that a Temple player was rushed to Main Campus for a rapid antigen COVID-19 test because they showed symptoms during pregame warmups.
Carey found out about the possibility of a positive test at about 11:15 p.m. and immediately arranged for the player to get their test which came back positive, he said.
“I thought we weren’t going to play,” Carey added. “Then we got told we were going to play. I didn’t know what to expect.”
The game was delayed until 1:00 pm, and Temple placed five players into COVID-19 protocols, including starters redshirt-junior cornerback Christian Braswell, redshirt-junior defensive end Arnold Ebiketie and redshirt-junior linebacker George Reid.
Despite this, the defense played well as they forced two turnovers and held the Pirates to just 182 passing yards. They were led by a trio of freshmen who received minimal playing time up to this point.
Linebacker Jordan Magee made an impressive interception when he caught a pass off a deflection and returned the ball 45 yards, setting up the Owls’ only score of the game. Linebacker Kobe Wilson recorded two tackles for loss, showing off his downhill speed and natural instincts.
Safety M.J. Griffin led the team with 11 total tackles while delivering several big hits and filling his assigned gap against the run well for a player with limited experience.
On offense, Gray completed just 10 passes for 95 yards and threw two interceptions. But he made his share of good throws, too.
In the first quarter, he hit redshirt-sophomore tight end David Martin-Robinson along the left sideline off a play action fake for a gain of 30 yards then in the third quarter he found redshirt-sophomore receiver Jose Barbon on a well placed ball for a gain of 17 yards.
The moment wasn’t too big for Gray. He trusted his arm and tried to make several big plays down the field, but he wasn’t able to consistently beat the Pirates’ defense.
It is unclear whether any of Temple’s starters will return for their next game on Nov. 28 against Cincinnati (8-0, 6-0 The American).
After a Saturday filled with unexpected developments and during a season mired by disappointment on the scoreboard, the Owls can at least take solace in how their younger players responded to adversity.
“It’s building character,” Mack said. “We are learning to fight through adversity because that’s all we have been fighting through this whole season.”