football Edit

Short-handed Temple loses 28-3 to ECU

As Saturday’s game between Temple and ECU was set to start at noon, both sidelines remained barren.

News broke at around 12:10 p.m. that a Temple player had to be tested for COVID-19, and there was uncertainty about how many players, coaches and staff would be affected.

After a 45-minute delay, each team returned to the field and the game played on as scheduled, resulting in a 28-3 loss for the Owls that dropped their season record to 1-6 overall.

Temple head coach Rod Carey had mentioned earlier in the week that he believed his team should not have played the last three weeks due to how depleted they were between injuries and the COVID protocol.

He echoed those sentiments after Saturday’s contest.

“It’s obviously not in my control. Honestly, I didn’t think we were going to play and then I got told we were going to play,” Carey said following Saturday’s loss. “We had five guys, an hour before the game, go into COVID protocol. I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest with you. We’ve used all the protocol at all different times but we had never discussed this event and I think everyone did a good job putting it together and communicating. I was quite frankly shocked with the result but again, I’m not the decision-maker.”

Stadium’s Brett McMurphy first reported that an unspecified Temple player’s girlfriend had tested positive the morning of the game. That player was taken to a nearby hospital to get a rapid antigen COVID-19 test, which later came back positive.

Linebacker George Reid, cornerback Christian Braswell, defensive end Arnold Ebiketie and cornerbacks Kimere Brown and Nate Wyatt were each added to the team’s COVID protocol just before kickoff, forcing their absence because of contact tracing with the unidentified player.

Additionally, a Temple spokesperson confirmed that true freshman quarterback Matt Duncan would not be available to play and that he had been suspended from the team indefinitely. Duncan was slated to get his first collegiate start with starter Anthony Russo out again in the team’s COVID protocol and backups Trad Beatty and Re-al Mitchell unable to play due to injuries.

With Temple’s first four quarterbacks on the depth chart inactive, freshman walk-on quarterback Kamal Gray was named the team’s starting signal-caller early Saturday morning. Gray became the first true freshman quarterback to start for Temple since P.J. Walker in 2013.

Gray said he woke up for breakfast at around 8:10 a.m. before his 8:50 a.m. meeting when he got a call that he should be at the meeting 10 minutes early.

“I came down and it was (quarterbacks) Coach (Craig) Harmon, Coach (offensive coordinator Mike) Uremovich and Coach Carey all in a room,” Gray said, recalling his morning. “They kind of just told me that I was starting this game…. I just went through all the plays with the coaches, asked any questions and went through my reads.”

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound fifth-string quarterback threw for 95 yards, completing 10 of his 21 passing attempts in his first game action. He was also picked off twice, one of which wasn’t entirely his fault looking for graduate receiver Willie Erdman over the middle.

“I’m sure as a freshman, he was kind of nervous going in. I know when I was a freshman I was nervous as all going out,” defensive tackle Dan Archibong said. “But just hearing from the guys that we got your back and whatever happens we’re going to support you goes a long way for a quarterback, especially a young quarterback. I’m sure all the pressure was on him and he was feeling that but I think he did a good job.”

Carey elected to give Branden Mack duties under center coming out of halftime. The graduate receiver played some quarterback at Cheltenham High School before his college days and has had his name previously tossed around as an emergency option for Temple.

Mack only saw two possessions under center and didn’t complete a pass, but he did have one rush for a first down and, more importantly, gave Gray a chance to take a step back.

“Just to calm down Kamal,” Carey said. “I think that it let him see the game and Branden brings a little different element that we didn’t have with Kamal, so that was it.”

Mack said it was an exciting opportunity to get under center and show his athletic capability. He said wide receiver is still his position, but it felt good to switch things up.

Trailing 14-3, the Owls had a chance to cut the deficit and shift the momentum before heading into the locker room at the half. An Adam Barry 51-yard punt pinned the Pirates down at their 2-yard line. Two plays later, true freshman linebacker Kobe Wilson forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Evan Boozer, giving Temple favorable field position just outside the red zone with a 2-minute drill.

On the ensuing possession, Gray threw his first career interception to ECU defensive back Shawn Dourseau on a poorly thrown fade route looking for Mack in double coverage at the front right corner of the end zone. Pirates junior quarterback Holton Ahlers turned that around and went the length of the field on a drive that culminated in a 46-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Tyler Snead. The drive lasted two plays and extended ECU’s lead to 21-3 before the half.

The most likely path to a Temple victory was to put points on the board by way of the ground game, considering the Owls had only 51 scholarship players and numerous absent starters. ECU’s run defense is also ranked 112th in the nation and 10th in the American, allowing 228.9 rushing yards per game. Naturally, exploiting that weakness could have been the difference.

Redshirt senior running back Tayvon Ruley saw a majority of the reps out of the backfield in the first half, but his day was cut short after injuring his shoulder just before halftime. He did not return to the field and finished Saturday’s contest with 14 carries for 48 yards, with a long of 13. Carey said postgame they would evaluate his status in the coming days. Onasis Neely then picked up the majority of the workload with 15 carries for 38 yards, but neither performance proved to be enough to keep the game within reach.

Despite what the scoreboard reflects, Temple’s defense put forth a valiant effort, considering how depleted they were. On that side of the ball, the Owls were without Braswell, Brown and Wyatt, as well as Ebiketie and Reid, all of whom were added to the team’s COVID protocol before kickoff. On top of that, cornerbacks Linwood Crump and Freddie Johnson were sidelined with injuries, in addition to safety Amir Tyler.

ECU’s offense was able to break loose for a couple of big plays that helped put a stamp on its lead, including a 75-yard scramble by Ahlers. The junior quarterback stepped out of bounds at the half yard line but was able to run it up the gut for a touchdown the following play. Ahlers later found C.J. Johnson down the left sideline, burning Temple defensive back Elijah Clark for a 60-yard score.

Wide receiver Branden Mack saw some time at quarterback Saturday. He played the position at Cheltenham High School and gave freshman Kamal Gray a breather in the Owls' 28-3 loss to ECU.
Wide receiver Branden Mack saw some time at quarterback Saturday. He played the position at Cheltenham High School and gave freshman Kamal Gray a breather in the Owls' 28-3 loss to ECU. (Don Otto)

All in all, Temple’s defense put forth a commendable effort. Linebacker Jordan Magee and safety M.J. Griffin made the most of their snaps, as the two redshirt freshmen look to be a part of the Owls’ solution on the defensive side of the ball going forward. Magee, who exited Temple’s COVID-19 protocol at the end of the week, stepped in without much practice and made an immediate impact, recording four tackles, intercepting Ahlers on a deflected pass and returning it for 45 yards. As for Griffin, the hard-hitting safety led the team with 11 tackles while stepping in for an injured Tyler and also recorded a significant pass break-up.

In a lost season, if Temple can hang its hat on anything, it’s the play of its young players. The defense’s bend-but-don’t-break mentality worked for the most part. Still, they were only able to stand on their heads for so long before the lack of an offensive rhythm wore them down, leading to another lopsided defeat.

Temple will see its starting quarterback return to the rotation on Tuesday after spending the last two weeks in the team’s COVID protocol and will wrap up its season hosting No. 7 Cincinnati next Saturday.