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November 16, 2013

Heartbroken again

It's a dark, gut-wrenching script that has played itself out on Temple's football program and its fan base on a number of occasions, and it ends with a last-second collapse in a game that was there for the taking.

It's happened at places like Buffalo in 2008 and Rutgers two weeks ago.

And Saturday, at Lincoln Financial Field against No. 15 Central Florida, it happened again.

After holding a seven-point lead and the very realistic possibility of a major upset in the palm of their hands, the Owls let the Knights score 10 points in the last 1 minute, 6 seconds of the game and trudged off the field with a stunning, 39-36 loss after Shawn Moffit's 23-yard field goal won it for UCF as time expired.

Temple, which fell to 1-9 overall and 0-6 in the American Athletic Conference with the loss, experienced perhaps its most exhilarating moment of the season when freshman quarterback P.J. Walker put the Owls ahead by 36-29 with 2:04 remaining when he found tight end Chris Parthemore on a seven-yard touchdown pass - on a broken play that saw him reverse his field and hit his senior tight end in the left corner of the end zone - and an ensuing two-point conversion jump pass to Parthemore.

But then the Owls allowed UCF (8-1, 5-0 AAC) to tie the game on one of the finest catches made in college football this season, and then they simply got in their own way when junior cornerback Anthony Robey made a costly, back-breaking coverage mistake that set up Moffit's game-winning kick.

After Temple took its last lead, UCF quarterback Blake Bortles needed just four plays and 58 seconds to help the Knights tie the game, and he did it on a 30-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver J.J. Worton that saw the 6-foot-2 junior make a diving, one-handed catch with his left arm in the back left corner of the end zone with 1:06 to go, and Moffit's extra point tied the game at 36-36.

Temple took over at its own 30-yard line with a minute to go, but Walker, who completed 26 of 44 passes for a career-high 382 yards and four touchdowns, and the Owls' offense couldn't get past the 33 on six plays (Walker hit wide receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick on a 13-yard pass for a first down but lost 10 yards on two sacks later in the series) and had to punt.

UCF then took over at its own 30-yard line with all but 19 seconds left to play, but that's when the gut-wrenching script played out yet again.

On first down, Bortles took the snap, looked to his left, and Robey, instead of playing back, inexplicably bit on a double-move and allowed Knights wide receiver [db]Rannell Hall to get behind him for a 64-yard bomb that got UCF down to the Temple 6-yard line. The Knights had time to get all the way up to the line of scrimmage because the clock stopped to move the chains, and Bortles spiked the ball on the next snap to stop the clock with two seconds left.

Moffit stepped in, calmly split the uprights on the 23-yarder, and that was it.

There is, of course, no way of knowing how things would have played out had the game gone to overtime instead. Temple is a team that has made just 1 of 6 field goals all season, so sending the game to an extra period would have been anything but a sure thing for the Owls.

But just as his fellow cornerback Zamel Johnson did two weeks ago when he got beat in coverage in the closing moments of Temple's heartbreaking, 23-20 loss at Rutgers two weeks ago, Robey, a junior who had played much better earlier with two pass breakups and a tackle for a loss, made a mistake he just can't afford to make on the 64-yard throw to Hall that gave way to the game-winning field goal.

"Stupidity on my part, man," Robey said when asked about the play. "I've got to be smarter than that. I've got to be smarter than that. Just stupidity on my part."

"I broke on the first move he gave me," Robey added. "I should have known he was going deep and in that situation, I've just got to be smarter."

When asked if he thought he had safety help behind him, Robey said, "No, I knew the play. Again, I've just got to be smarter. Totally my fault."

And at the end of the day, there wasn't much Temple football coach Matt Rhule could say otherwise to paint a different picture.

"I don't know what to tell you," Rhule said. "I try to do a good job of always protecting the players, but at the end of the day, that was what that was. He ran out, stuttered, [Robey] jumped it and went right by him for a touchdown."

It erased what would have otherwise been a monumental win for a developing program that desperately needed one of those moments.

Save for a late interception that UCF did not covert to points, Walker was outstanding in his fifth start and seventh college football game. His 382 passing yards are the third-highest single-game total in the program's history, and he connected eight times for 184 yards and two touchdowns to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Robby Anderson, by far the biggest surprise of the Owls' season.

Walker, who has now completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 1,476 yards and 15 touchdowns to go with six interceptions, helped Temple to a 7-5 lead at the 13:48 mark of the second quarter on a 32-yard touchdown pass to running back Jamie Gilmore, scored on a 3-yard run en route to a 14-12 Owls' lead with 6:15 left before halftime, and connected with Anderson on a 30-yard touchdown strike with 2:13 left before halftime that led to a short-lived, 21-19 Temple lead.

In the second half, he hit Anderson on a 75-yard scoring strike with 3:31 left in the third quarter that put the Owls ahead by 28-22, and then there was the play he made on the late touchdown pass to Parthemore.

When Walker entered his first game in the loss to Fordham back on Sept. 14, he completed just 1 of 3 passes for 13 yards and was sacked twice and very much looked the part of a 19-year-old playing his first college football game. A little more than two months later, he's become the centerpiece of Temple's offense and the future of the program.

"I'm not so nervous anymore," said Walker, who completed passes to nine different receivers and also tallied 41 yards on the ground. "I'm just putting a lot of hard work into practices. Since then, I've developed more into a man with a leadership role."

He certainly has. The issue seems to be that the Owls' defense needs more of those types of players, and it just isn't happening.

Bortles, one of the better quarterbacks in the nation, threw for 404 yards and four touchdowns, but 94 of them came in the last 66 seconds of the game. Prior to that, Temple's defense sacked Bortles three times and, despite allowing 267 rushing yards and an eye-popping 657 total yards, had somehow done enough to win the game - including a goal-line stand that saw freshman strong safety Jihaad Pretlow break up a Bortles pass intended for tight end Kevin Miller in the back of the end zone on fourth-and-1 with 4:50 left in the third quarter.

Five plays later, Temple used that momentum when Walker hit Anderson on the 75-yard touchdown bomb.

It was a proud moment for a defense that has certainly struggled, but it ultimately wasn't enough.

Unfortunately for the Owls, Robey's coverage error was the self-inflicted wound that trumped everything else.

"This is something that's going to stick with me for the rest of my career, really," a somber Robey said. "I've just got to try to forget about it an move on and get ready for the next game."

Rhule, in trying to process everything to the media in his postgame press conference, was equal parts protective of his players and brutally honest.

"Ultimately, that (64-yard pass to set up the game-winning field goal) falls back on me," he said, "but my job in that room is to say that at some point you're going to have to listen to what you're being told. I think we have enough players in there who are saying that. You can tell because the guys that are doing what they're told are playing really well. You can see we're getting better and we were close today against the No. 15 team in the country and for most of the game we were beating them.

"We'll never win these kinds of games if we don't have all 11 guys doing what they're supposed to do at the end of the game."

Robey knows it. No one in the program seems to be in the mood for moral victories.

"We had them beat," he said. "We should have beat them."

Extra points: After Temple went with a pass-heavy offensive approach through much of the game, junior running back Kenny Harper tallied 67 of his team-high 77 rushing yards on the Owls' last touchdown drive. � Middle linebackers [db]Nate D. Smith and Jarred Alwan and defensive tackle Hershey Walton accounted for Temple's three sacks. � Outside linebacker Tyler Matakevich and free safety Abdul Smith led the Owls with nine tackles apiece. � The first half featured six lead changes and a safety that got Central Florida on the scoreboard at the 6:39 mark of the first quarter when left guard Jeff Whittingham got blown up on a run play and Zaire Williams got dropped in the end zone by Knights outside linebacker Troy Gray. A little more than three minutes later, after getting the ball following the safety, Moffitt converted a 20-yard field goal for a 5-0 lead with 3:31 left in the first quarter.

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