PISCATAWAY, NJ -- When you're a one-win team looking for anything that will help your program turn the corner, every play and every moment will be scrutinized.
And on Saturday at Rutgers' High Point Solutions Stadium, two game-deciding plays sent Temple from ecstasy to agony in a gut-punching, 23-20 loss to the Scarlet Knights.
Temple, which fell to 1-8 overall and 0-5 in the American Athletic Conference, saw a four-point lead slip away in a matter of 1 minute, 15 seconds. A failed fourth-and-1 call that saw Owls running back Kenny Harper get stopped at the Rutgers 28-yard line with 1:50 left to go and a 33-yard touchdown pass from Scarlet Knights quarterback Gary Nova to wide receiver Leonte Carroo - on fourth-and-10, nonetheless - with 35 seconds to go that left senior cornerback Zamel Johnson beat in Carroo's tracks were the plays that twisted the knife and sent the Owls back home on the New Jersey Turnpike with that awful, how the heck did this happen again? feeling.
Temple had taken a 20-16 lead with 10:57 to go on a 25-yard touchdown run by Harper, who now has 11 touchdowns this season. And once the Owls got the ball back with 8:54 left, they converted twice on third down to keep the clock and the chains moving.
On third-and-4 from the Rutgers' 30, Harper got three yards before being wrapped up by Steve Longa and Jamal Merrell. Temple coach Matt Rhule called timeout, and had a choice to make - send a struggling kicker, freshman Nick Visco, who had earlier missed an extra point and has only hit one field goal - a 25-yarder - this season onto the field, or go for it on fourth down and put the game away.
Visco stood by Rhule's right shoulder during the timeout, but Rhule had made up his mind.
"There was really no debate at all," Rhule said of the decision to go for it on fourth down. "They had no timeouts left, so if we get it, the game's over and we take a knee. If we don't get it, they get the ball right there. If I kick the field goal, even if I make it, we have to kick off and it's a seven-point game, so I'm giving them the ball back.
"Our field-goal-kicking situation aside, coaching probabilities would say you get that half yard there and if not, they get the ball at the 30 and they have to drive the field. ... I just felt like we were controlling the line of scrimmage and we have to go get that half yard."
On the next play, Temple dialed up what both Harper and quarterback P.J. Walker said was the same exact play they had run before, the one that netted them three yards.
But this time, it didn't work.
Longa and Kevin Snyder wrapped up Harper for a 1-yard loss, and the momentum officially swung back to a Rutgers team that had been facing its own demons, including a quarterback quandary and a struggling pass defense that got shredded the week before in a loss to Houston.
When Harper and Walker were asked about running the same play on consecutive downs, both said they stood by the call. The Pistol formation had Walker in the shotgun with Harper behind him.
"It was the same play we ran the play before," Walker said. "We just had to convert. It was a toughness thing and we didn't get it."
"In my mind, we were getting it," Walker added.
"We called the right play," Harper said. "It's just that they schemed a good blitz for it and kind of overloaded to one side."
Rhule, when asked about the call, also defended it.
"We were running something similar through pretty much most of the game," he said. "They brought the house, you need somebody to make a block and Kenny to slip off like he had done a couple of other times on fourth-and-1. You know they're going to outnumber you. It just comes down to good, old-fashioned football and you're going to have to move people and get the yard and obviously we didn't."
From there, Nova and Rutgers had new life and immediately went to work. Nova, who went 7 of 15 for 138 yards and three interceptions last week before being benched in the third quarter, fired off four straight completions of 12, 10, nine and eight yards before missing twice on back-to-back throws to Carroo from the Temple 33.
On third down, sophomore linebacker Nate D. Smith sacked Nova, and freshman linebacker Sharif Finch thought he came up with the ball on a fumble on the play. Instead, the officiating crew thought Finch was trying to keep the ball from Nova and whistled him for a five-yard delay-of-game penalty.
And on the next play, Nova didn't miss Carroo, who hurt Temple with seven catches for 147 yards and two touchdowns. Temple blitzed Nova, but Nova found Carroo down the right side and past Johnson for the 33-yard touchdown that unearthed visions of the Owls' excruciating loss to Fordham earlier this season. Kyle Federico's extra point - he, too - had missed a PAT earlier in the game - was good, and Rutgers had a 23-20 lead with 35 seconds to go.
Temple got the ball back on its own 17 after the kickoff with 28 seconds left, but wide receiver Ryan Alderman coughed up a fumble after a 13-yard completion and Rutgers cornerback Ruhann Peele recovered it (the play was reviewed and confirmed) to seal the Owls' loss.
Nova nearly got hit on the game-winning touchdown pass, but nearly doesn't matter.
"I said, 'Send them.' I wanted to go after (blitz) him," Rhule said of the play. "I didn't want to watch it anymore, so I said, 'Hey, we're going to go after him.' As we get more experience, you'd like to think he'd be off and he'd know they're going to throw the fade, but he walked up and bumped him and the guy just beat him.
"As I told them, it's on me, it's on the staff, it's on the players. It's not on Zamel. He's out there trying to cover that guy, and we need him to cover him, but it's also on the guys (up front). We outnumbered them. It's on the guys that blitzed. It's on the guys that didn't get there. We've all got to go get there, and we didn't."
With that answer, Rhule did what most coaches feel the need to do and defended his player. But one might argue, Rhule was asked, that Johnson, a fifth-year senior with 43 games of experience under his belt, should know better.
"One of the things I feel good about in what we've tried to is put the game in the players' hands," Rhule responded, "and the players appreciate that. That last drive ... we let P.J. throw the football. ... We put the ball in our players' hands. We let Zaire run the football, Kenny run the football, P.J. throw the ball. Fourth-and-1, we put it in the players' hands. And that's not to put the blame on them. We just want them to feel that feeling, and that's what we did on defense. We just said, 'Hey, go make a play,' and their kid did. And I think our kids are going to start to feed off that. They made a lot of plays today. Our kids made a lot of plays today, and we'll just keep getting better and better."
Temple, which now has a bye week before hosting Central Florida Nov. 16, took a 6-0 lead (Visco missed the extra point) with 1:49 left in the first quarter on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Walker to wide receiver Robby Anderson, and Rutgers cut it to 6-3 when Federico hit a 30-yard field goal at the 11-minute mark of the second quarter. A well-executed play fake left Harper wide open on a four-yard touchdown pass with 1:07 left in the second quarter that gave the Owls a 13-3 lead at halftime.
Rutgers regained the lead in the second half on two touchdown passes from Nova - a four-yard scoring toss to fullback Michael Burton at the 10:37 mark of the third quarter and a 34-yard strike to Carroo just 57 seconds into the fourth quarter before Harper's 25-yard scoring run helped Temple regain the lead.
Walker finished 21 of 32 passing with 203 yards to seven different receivers and had the two touchdowns to go with two interceptions. The first one didn't hurt Temple, but the second one, which preceded the Nova-to-Carroo 34-yard touchdown, did.
Nova, who nearly lost his starting job to backup Chas Dodd during the week, found new life Saturday and finished 27 of 38 passing for 371 yards and three touchdowns while being sacked twice - by Smith and fellow linebacker Tyler Matakevich.
A lot of those aforementioned names are the ones making plays for Temple. But until they can prove otherwise, the Owls haven't been able to make the play when it counts.
"It cuts you even deeper because you want to progress from the week before," Harper said, "and I think we did progress the week before (at SMU), but you want to see the result with the win, of course."
"You just have to tell the guys to keep going, keep going," Harper added. "I know it sounds kind of repetitive because every week, it's a tough loss, but you just have to tell them to keep going."
When Rhule was part of former coach Al Golden's staff that rebuilt Temple from arguably the worst program in the country to one that eventually went to two bowl games and won one of them, the Owls lived by a couple of sayings that guided them through moments of doubt, and both were quite appropriate.
One was 'Death by inches,' pointing to the plays that left Temple painstakingly short of wins. The other was 'Belief without evidence,' a nod to the fact that the players would have to keep believing the rock would eventually crack even if they didn't have wins to show for it.
Both would seem to apply after Saturday's loss, and it's now up to Temple if they'll eventually turn the corner once again.
"Eventually, it's going to click. And when it clicks, it's going to be something special," said Harper, a player who was initially thought to be a third-down back but has instead blossomed into one of the team's top offensive weapons. "You just have to tell them to keep going, and even though you might be upset or be down, it's right there."
Harper then introduced another analogy.
"It's kind of like the story where the dude was digging for the diamond and then he stopped, but it's right there," Harper said. "It's the same principle, the same thing going with us."
Extra points: Temple and Rutgers combined for 17 penalties and 130 lost yardage on those penalties. ... Rutgers punted five times, but Temple's Ryan Alderman did not return any of them. ... The Owls held Rutgers running back Justin Goodwin to 60 yards on 20 carries. ... Temple tight end Chris Coyer left the game with what Matt Rhule said was a sprained ankle and did not return after catching two passes for 18 yards. ... Wide receiver John Christopher led the Owls with five catches for 41 yards. ... Freshman running back Zaire Williams led Temple with 59 yards on 13 carries, while Kenny Harper carried 12 times for 49 yards. ... Freshman safety Jihaad Pretlow struggled Saturday afternoon. He got beat on one of Nova's touchdown passes, the 34-yarder to Carroo, and was also whistled for a late hit on Nova.