WRITTEN BY TOM HANSLIN @tomhanslin
In front of a sold-out crowd at Lincoln Financial Field, Temple was nearly two minutes away from the program’s greatest victory, but Notre Dame’s offense rallied late, and diminished the Owls’ chances.
Fighting Irish Quarterback Deshone Kizer connected with Will Fuller in the corner of the endzone for a 17-yard touchdown completion with 2:09 left, and Owls’ quarterback P.J. Walker’s interception one minute later helped Notre Dame escape, 24-20 on Saturday night.
The loss was the first for Temple in the 2015 season, as they entered Saturday’s primetime game with an undefeated record of 7-0.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our football team,” said Owls’ Head Coach Matt Rhule. “I thought they fought, scratched, clawed, we made some mistakes, but I think we proved we’re a real good football team. One of the best in the country.”
Notre Dame elected to receive the game’s opening kickoff, and on their first drive, the Fighting Irish converted twice on third down plays, and marched into the endzone on a 4-yard touchdown rush by Quarterback Deshone Kizer. It was a 12-play drive for 74 yards, as Notre Dame drew first blood with a 7-0 lead at the nine minute mark. It was the first time that the Owls’ defense surrendered points on the opponent’s first drive this season.
After back to back punts, Temple regained possession near midfield, and with a first down at Notre Dame’s 48, the offense called a flea flicker, as Quarterback P.J. Walker connected with receiver Robby Anderson for a 22-yard gain. The drive concluded on a 41-yard field goal made by Austin Jones, cutting the Owls’ deficit to 7-3.
With 12 minutes remaining in the half, Owls’ punter Alex Stazyk kicked the ball from deep in his own endzone to the Owls’ 41 yard line. On a third and short for the Fighting Irish, a pass interference penalty was called on cornerback Tavon Young, which placed Notre Dame inside the redzone. On a third down at the 14, Kizer tossed an interception to defensive end Praise Martin-Oguike.
With the ball at Temple’s own 6, Walker handed the ball off to halfback Jahad Thomas, who found an open gap for a 44-yard run. On a second down at midfield, Walker connected with Ventell Bryant for a 26-yard completion. A defensive pass interference penalty on third down placed Temple at Notre Dame’s own 12, and on another third down, Walker then found Brandon Shippen for a 12-yard touchdown, handing the Owls the lead 10-7 with 6:17 to go in the half.
On the ensuing drive, Kizer ran a quarterback keeper on a third and short, which resulted in a breakout 79-yard touchdown run, handing Notre Dame the lead once again, 14-10. The play alone was the most rushing yards surrendered by Temple at home all year.
After another three and out from the Owls’ offense, Notre Dame managed to drive down to the Temple’s 11 yard line, but Kizer was once again picked off, this time on a deflected pass, recovered by linebacker Tyler Matakevich. The score would remain the same heading into halftime.
To start the third quarter, Temple began with the ball at their own 20, and on the first play from scrimmage, Walker found Ventell Bryant for a 28-yard completion. The Owls failed to convert on the next set of downs, and forced their fourth punt.
Notre Dame then responded with a deep offensive drive, as Kizer connected with receiver Torii Hunter Jr. for 40 yards on a screen play. The Fighting Irish then entered the redzone, but were forced to settle with a 23-yard field goal made by Justin Yoon, increasing the lead to 17-10 midway through the third.
The fourth quarter opened with the Owls electing to keep the offense on the field for fourth down, and on the play, Walker threw to Anderson for a 31-yard gain to make it first and goal at Notre Dame’s 7 yard line. On third and goal at the 9, Notre Dame was penalized for targeting, granting a first and goal at the 4.
On fourth and goal to go, Walker flipped the ball out to Thomas, who shook one defender and crossed the white plane, knotting the score at 17-17 with 10:51 to go.
Temple’s defense stepped up again on the ensuing drive, and forced a Notre Dame punt to the Owls’ own 39 yard line. The next drive brought the offense all the way down to Notre Dame’s 19, and on fourth and two, Jones drilled a 36-yard field goal, giving Temple the 20-17 lead with 4:49 left in regulation.
The ensuing possession for the Fighting Irish ignited a rally, as a 45-yard pass from Kizer to Alize Jones placed Notre Dame in field goal range. Two plays later, Kizer connected with Philadelphia native Will Fuller for a 17-yard touchdown, placing Notre Dame ahead 24-20 with two minutes remaining.
The contest came down to a final possession for Temple, but Walker’s intended pass to his receiver was intercepted by KeiVarae Russell, which sealed Notre Dame’s victory.
The Fighting Irish improved to 7-1 on the season, and trailed in the fourth quarter for the fifth time this year.
“The message was very simple, this was the moment,” said Rhule. “There’s no moral victory because we’re not here to lose.”
Temple’s defense surrendered 168 rushing yards to Notre Dame, half of which came on Kizer’s touchdown run, and allowed a total of 467 yards on 67 plays. Kizer finished with 348 all-purpose yards, including two touchdowns.
“We knew we were going to have to make plays to stay in the game,” said Owls’ cornerback Tavon Young. “We could have done things better to stop them, but they made a play at the end.”
Saturday night concluded a magical week for Temple University, specifically the football team, as national television coverage throughout the week highlighted the strengths of the Owls’ up and coming program. Rhule was pleased that the crowd and audience had the chance to watch till the very end.
“I hope they say, ‘that’s a damn good football team, and that’s a heck of a place’,” said Rhule. “That was a Temple crowd. You turn that on all across the country, you see a great Temple crowd. You see a great week, and a great football game.”
P.J. Walker finished the day with 188 yards on 13 completions, including one touchdown and one late interception. Owls’ leading rusher Jahad Thomas was also restricted to only 93 yards, but did earn a fourth quarter score.
“We don’t want to lose, but we still have conference play,” said Walker. “We have a great team and we can play with anybody.
For Senior linebacker Tyler Matekevich, who recorded his fifth interception this year, tied for the most by any player in the American Athletic Conference, took the loss to heart, but was proud with how his teammates maintained composure in front of the largest crowd in Temple history.
“At the end of the day, the atmosphere was crazy, and you can’t let your emotions get the best of you,” said Matakevich. “I think that was something that we let happen in the beginning. But once we settled down, we showed you how good of a defense we are.”
Notre Dame entered the contest as ten and a half point favorites, and failed to cover against a Temple team that refused to let up.
“Everyone doubted us, no one gave us a chance,” said Matekevich. “You can’t beat yourself up. It is what it is, the game’s over, we’ll see what we did wrong and get ready for SMU.”
The Owls’ loss concluded non-conference play for the 2015 season, as Temple now remains with four conference games left on the schedule. On Friday night, they visit Dallas to take on the Southern Methodist Mustangs (1-7, 0-4), the second-worst team in the AAC.
“We better get over this pretty quickly, because we have a game Friday night,” said Rhule. “We say ‘what’s next’ when we’re winning, but you got to say ‘what’s next’ when you’re losing.”