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October 13, 2012

Comeback kids

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- As Temple coach Steve Addazio said himself, it wasn't always pretty.

Sometimes, he admitted, it was plain ugly.

But somehow, some way, the Owls overcame eight penalties, two failed fourth-down conversions in the fourth quarter, and any number of maddening moments that made Saturday's game at Connecticut's Rentschler Field look like it was out of reach.

Junior quarterback Chris Coyer, who had completed less than half of his passes prior to the final drive in regulation, helped tie the game on a 14-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick with 19 seconds left to force overtime, and placekicker Brandon McManus calmly drilled a 29-yard field goal in the extra period to lock down a come-from-behind 17-14 win over a stunned UConn team on its homecoming weekend.

As a result, Temple is now 3-2 overall and 2-0 in the Big East heading into next weekend's game against nationally-ranked Rutgers. And for the first time in the program's history, the Owls have won consecutive Big East games. Not too shabby for a program that was asked to leave the conference after the 2004 season and just rejoined the league back in March after a six-year stint in the Mid-American Conference.

There were all sorts of other storylines and subplots in this one, too.

Addazio, a Farmington, Conn., native, was proud and somewhat emotional about beating a UConn team coached by his coaching mentor, Paul Pasqualoni. In fact, Addazio really kick started his coaching career by building nearby Cheshire High School - no more than a few miles down the road on I-84 - into a national prep powerhouse before moving along to collegiate coaching stops at Syracuse, Notre Dame, Indiana, Florida and, eventually, Temple.

And the star of the Owls' defense that got shredded in the first quarter but did not allow a point after that was freshman outside linebacker Tyler Matakevich, a Strafford, Conn., native who had more than 30 friends and family members in attendance. He tallied a game-high 19 total tackles and a pass break-up for a defense that redeemed itself to the tune of six sacks and allowed just 142 yards after giving up 192 in the first quarter alone.

And on a day when senior tailback Matt Brown tried to make a go of it on a sprained ankle but seemed to reinjure it on the opening kickoff, fellow senior running back Montel Harris was the definition of a workhorse. The 5-foot-10, 207-pound Boston College transfer, who is now the NCAA's active leader in career 100-yard games with 24, churned out 142 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries against a UConn unit that came into Saturday's game ranked eighth nationally in rushing defense.

Add it all up, and it was a satisfying win for a Temple team that, despite its deficiencies, is starting to put together some program-defining moments.

"There's a lot of fight and a lot of will on 10th and Diamond," Addazio said, referring to the location of the team's practice facility. "This team's got that fight in them. They've got that will in them. They've got that stuff that's the great foundation of the building of a program.

"The moral of the story here," Addazio added, "is we found a way to win."

When Temple took the ball at its own 20 down 14-0 with 6 minutes, 7 seconds left before halftime, the Owls were getting thoroughly dominated. To be more specific, the Owls had just eight yards of total offense to the Huskies' 247. A UConn offense that came into Saturday's game ranked dead last in the Big East in scoring offense was getting Joe Montana-like accuracy from quarterback Chandler Whitmer, who was getting all day to throw and connected on two first-quarter touchdown passes to wide receiver Michael Smith and tight end Ryan Griffin for 15 and 42 yards, respectively.

But Temple finally showed some signs of life and punched back, responding with a six-play, 80-yard drive that culminated with Harris' 24-yard touchdown run off the left side that saw him jump over the line of scrimmage. Harris carried the ball four times on that drive, including a 33-yard run that put the Owls down at the UConn 32.

What's the maddening stuff, you might ask? Well, with a chance to put more points on the board before halftime and gain more momentum, Temple faltered when Harris, on a third-and-8 play from the UConn 26, got stripped by Huskies middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood and fumbled. Smallwood recovered it, and the Owls lost out on a chance to get three points on what would have been a very makeable field goal by McManus.

Then there was more futility in the second half, as Temple's next seven drives failed. In fact, the first five didn't get beyond midfield. The last two ended with those fourth-down conversions that didn't work out.

On fourth-and-1 from the UConn 24, Addazio elected to go for it with 8:25 left, but Harris was stopped for a 2-yard loss by Angelo Pruitt and Ryan Wirth. McManus had a makeable field goal attempt at 41 yards, one that would have cut the score to 14-10 with the chance to go ahead later on a touchdown. Instead, the possession, which came via a UConn turnover, went to waste.

After the Huskies (3-4) went three-and-out on the ensuing series, Temple had another shot but found itself facing a fourth-and-1 at the UConn 39. Addazio and offensive coordinator Ryan Day again went up the middle with Harris, who this time was dropped for a three-yard loss, leaving the Huskies with the ball and a seven-point lead with 5:17 left to play.

"That was really the hardest thing. I'm an offensive line coach, I'm a run-game guy, and for us not to convert those two fourth downs was really hard for me," Addazio said. "Really hard - for us, I should say. We pride ourselves on that, but we had a couple of breakdowns in there, to tell you the truth, and they were almost too costly to overcome."

The redemption process began when Deon Miller, just as Marcus Green had done a week before, saved Temple by blocking a field goal. This time, Miller, a wide receiver, got his hand on a 44-yard attempt by Huskies placekicker Chad Christen with 2:52 left to play. It was one of three misses for Christen on the day.

From there, Coyer launched what would eventually become a 12-play, 72-yard comeback drive that included two fourth-down conversions - a three-yard run by Harris on fourth-and-1 from the Temple 37 and a 13-yard throw from Coyer to Harris on fourth-and-7 from the Temple 43. Then, facing a third-and-13 from the UConn 47, Coyer found Miller for a 33-yard strike down the left sideline that set up the Owls at the Huskies' 14-yard line.

On the next play, Coyer looked left for a few seconds - Miller, he said, was his first option on the play - before looking to his right and firing a bullet to Fitzpatrick for the 14-yard touchdown pass that made it 14-13 with 19 seconds left. McManus' extra point tied it.

"We've been saying ever since the spring that we were going to go need to win a game in the two-minute (offense)," Coyer said, "win or tie the game in the two-minute. That was just the focus, on making plays, and your mindset doesn't really change too much other than to keep moving the chains and keep getting downfield."

"It's never going to be pretty," Coyer added. "We just went down and got it done."

And it was a bit of poetic justice that a Temple receiver (Fitzpatrick) got his feet in bounds (the touchdown play was reviewed and upheld) in the end zone on the same field where, a little more than five years ago, former Owls wideout Bruce Francis was robbed of a touchdown on a play when he clearly got one foot in the back of the end zone after catching a tipped pass. Francis was ruled to be out of bounds, and the call was still upheld after being reviewed.

Back to the present, Temple won the overtime coin toss and deferred to UConn, which started at the Owls' 25 and got the ball down to the 11 to set up Christen for what should have been a makeable 28-yard field goal attempt. But Christen missed wide right, and Temple was in business at that point.

From there, Harris reeled off runs of two, 10 and three yards. Coyer then ran the ball over to the middle of the field and set up McManus for his 29-yard field goal attempt on third down. The senior, who last week uncharacteristically missed an extra point and a field goal, split the uprights and sent his teammates and coaches running onto the field in jubilation.

"You really just wanted to win it for everyone who put their heart out there on the line today," said McManus, who also averaged 42.6 yards on eight punts and earned the compliment of 'best kicker in the country' by Addazio.

In addition to Matakevich, redshirt freshman middle linebacker Nate Smith was a tackling machine. He had 14 and got one of the defense's six sacks.

Oh, and Temple did most of its best offensive work down the stretch without senior center Sean Boyle, who left the game with an injury in the fourth quarter. True freshman Kyle Friend moved over from right guard to center, sophomore Jaimen Newman took Friend's place at right guard, and Temple somehow didn't miss much of a beat.

"It's imperfect," Addazio said. "But, God, you've got to kind of love the grit."

Extra points: UConn played without regular starting tailback Lyle McCombs, who was out with a wrist injury he sustained in the Huskies' game against Rutgers last week. … Temple coach said after the game that he played true freshman running back Jamie Gilmore once the team knew Matt Brown, who returned to the sideline in street clothes, wouldn't be able to return after the opening kickoff. That means Gilmore, the promising recruit out of Florida's North Marion High School, will play this year instead of redshirt. … Temple played 14 freshmen Saturday - seven true freshmen and seven redshirt freshmen.

OwlScoop.com editor John Di Carlo can be reached at jgdicarlo@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @OwlScoop_com. or @jdicarlo.

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