WRITTEN BY TOM HANSLIN @tomhanslin
CINCINNATI– In a classic game of improbable comebacks, linebacker Tyler Matakevich’s game-winning interception with 13 seconds remaining concluded a nail-biting finish for the Owls, as Temple prevailed at Cincinnati 34-26 on Saturday night.
It was the second interception that Bearcats’ quarterback Gunner Kiel surrendered to Matakevich, as the Owls’ pressing defense denied Cincinnati of a late scoring drive during the closing moments of regulation.
Temple’s offense drew first blood midway through the first quarter, as kicker Austin Jones drilled a 40-yard field goal to place the Owls ahead 3-0. In the ensuing drive, Cincinnati failed to convert on an 11 plays, as Bearcats’ kicker Andrew Gantz missed wide left on a 53-yard field goal attempt.
In the second quarter, a pair of Owls’ punts led to two consecutive scoring drives by Cincinnati, as the Bearcats drilled two field goals to gain a 6-3 lead with less than seven minutes remaining in the first half. In the following drive, Temple began their offensive frenzy, responding with a ten play, 74-yard march to the end zone, resulting in a one-yard touchdown pass from quarterback P.J. Walker to tight end Michael Felton. The Owls entered the locker room with a 10-6 halftime lead, and would receive the second half kickoff.
The third quarter opened with a booming kick from Gantz that was caught by running back Jahad Thomas three yards deep into the Owls’ end zone. Instead of taking the standard touchback, Thomas saw gaping holes down field and turned on the jets, dodging Bearcats’ defenders in a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to make the score 17-7.
In response to Thomas’ stunning efforts, Cincinnati opted to return the favor on offense, as Kiel immediately found wide receiver Mekale McKay for an 88-yard touchdown pass on the second play from scrimmage. Trailing 17-12, the Bearcats selected to go for a two-point conversion, but failed on a passing attempt intended for Shaq Washington.
The Owls’ first offensive drive of the second half began on their own 20 yard line, but ended in sporadic fashion as a handoff to Thomas resulted in a 56-yard rushing touchdown to place Temple ahead 24-12 with over 13 minutes still remaining in the third quarter.
With both teams in regular kickoff formation, Owls’ head coach Matt Rhule cunningly opened up their trick book and fooled Cincinnati with a daring onside kick and recovery near midfield. Temple’s offense quickly returned to the field, but failed to gain a yard, forcing a punt from Alex Starzyk.
After the quick change in possession, Cincinnati’s offensive mishaps returned, as Kiel was picked off by Matakevich at the Bearcats’ own 13, placing the Owls with their second trip inside the red zone. Due to an offensive holding penalty on lineman Eric Lofton, Temple was placed backwards at the 28-yard line, but was immediately returned inside the 20 with three carries by Thomas for 21 yards. On a third down and six at Cincinnati’s 13, Walker connected with Robby Anderson in the end zone to increase the Owls’ lead to 31-12 with less than six minutes remaining in the third.
The Bearcats managed to reach their own 36 yard line on the next drive, but Kiel forced another interception, returned by Owls’ safety Alex Wells. Temple’s possession ran out the closing minutes of the third quarter, and the Owls would eventually settle with a 35-yard field goal from Jones to bump the lead up to 22.
Cincinnati’s persistent miscues presented a daunting comeback challenge, and to the surprise of the Owls, the Bearcats turned on the switch, posting a 71-yard drive on eight plays that resulted in a rushing touchdown by Tion Green. Gantz’ extra point attempt cut the deficit to 15 with 12:06 reaming in regulation.
On the ensuing possession, Temple failed to convert a first down, and forced a punt to the Bearcats’ 28. Cincinnati quickly reached the Owls’ 37 yard line on four successful plays, and would later find their offense inside the red zone due to a controversial defensive pass interference penalty from Will Hayes. After an incomplete pass from Kiel on first down, Owls’ safety Alex Wells was a ball magnet once again, returning another interception 57 yards down into Bearcats’ territory.
A second straight punt from Starzyk left the door open for Cincinnati, and the Bearcats took advantage with an 11 play drive that resulted in a Shaq Washington touchdown with under three minutes left. In order to cut the deficit to a one possession game, Cincinnati took the extra point to cut the lead to 34-26. With the onside kick formation set, Temple successfully recovered the attempt, placing the Owls at the Bearcats’ 46.
On the first play from scrimmage, Thomas ran up the middle for seven yards, forcing Cincinnati to call their first charged timeout. On second down and three to go, Thomas rushed to the right for two yards, but lost possession of the football after crossing the first down markers. The loose ball was then recovered by Bearcats’ Leviticus Payne at their own 29 yard line, leaving Cincinnati with one final opportunity to rally with two timeouts in the final three minutes.
The final drive started smoothly for Kiel, as four consecutive completions placed the Bearcats near midfield, forcing a second charged timeout with 1:13 remaining. Two incomplete passes followed, but another controversial pass interference call on Temple moved the ball 15 yards forward to the Owls’ 32.
With 55 seconds remaining, Kiel found receiver Johnny Holton for a 16 yard gain and Shaq Washington for 11 yards, making it a first and goal for the Bearcats with 30 seconds on the clock. In shotgun formation, Kiel looked to the middle for an open receiver, but a tipped ball in the end zone found its way into Matakevich’s hands, securing the road victory for the Owls.
Jahad Thomas was the offensive star for the second straight game, as he tallied 342 all-purpose yards (an AAC record), including a 103-yard kickoff return and 193 rushing yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. Quarterback P.J. Walker completed 13 of 20 passes for 82 yards and two scores, while Bearcats’ Gunner Kiel was 30 for 56 with 427 passing yards, the third most yards ever earned by an Owls’ opponent.
It was Temple’s first win over Cincinnati since 1986, snapping a five-game losing streak in the series history. The Owls also improved to a record of 2-0 for the first time since the 2011 campaign, and move on to face the University of Massachusetts at Gillette Stadium next Saturday afternoon.