PITTSBURGH -- After generating some early buzz by winning its first two Big East games eight years after it was asked to leave the conference, Temple is finding out the hard way that there will in fact be a distinct step up in competition as the Owls reenter the league's atmosphere.
And it's only going to get harder in the coming weeks.
Saturday at Heinz Field against a Pitt team that had previously been winless in the Big East, Temple's defense got shredded to the tune of a season-worst 528 total yards - including 321 through the air - in a 47-17 loss to the Panthers that dropped the Owls to 3-4 overall and 2-2 in the Big East.
It was also a setback that will make Temple's dreams of becoming bowl-eligible that much tougher, especially with high-powered offenses like Louisville and Cincinnati looming in the next two weeks.
"How many explosive plays did we have against us? Entirely too many," Temple coach Steve Addazio said. "I feel like had we been able to limit it even just a little, I think it wouldn't have been so insurmountable to come back on. But we couldn't limit that. And even when we did just for a little while, you saw at the end there - bam, big play."
Much has been made of Temple's recent offensive struggles, but the problems were not really coming from that side of the ball Saturday. Junior quarterback Chris Coyer completed 16 of his 25 pass attempts for 143 yards and a touchdown and didn't turn the ball over. His 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cody Booth with 2 minutes, 53 seconds left in the first quarter temporarily stopped some of the bleeding and got the Owls within a touchdown at 14-7.
And after a slow start, senior tailback Montel Harris churned out 72 yards on 18 carries. His 14-yard touchdown run at the 11:45 mark of the third quarter capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive on the first series of the second half and gave Temple a shot of life after it came out of halftime trailing by 24 points.
The problem was a hemorrhaging defense that showed no signs of stopping anyone or anything.
Pitt senior tailback Ray Graham, who is recovering from a torn ACL injury he sustained last season, racked up 109 yards and two touchdowns, and his promising freshman understudy, Rushel Shell, added 79 yards and a touchdown of his own on just 12 touches.
But Temple, as it did last week in a loss to nationally-ranked Rutgers, really got hurt through the air. Senior quarterback Tino Sunseri came into Saturday having completed 71 percent of his passes over the last five games, and the Owls did nothing to slow him down. The Panthers' signal caller connected on 20 of his 28 attempts for 321 yards and three touchdowns. Junior wide receiver Devin Street, a big target at 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, caught six of those passes for 140 yards, including a late, 58-yard touchdown catch with 4:41 left to play that led to the 47-17 final score.
Temple's defense has now allowed seven passing touchdown over the last two weeks - four to Rutgers and three Saturday to Pitt. And to throw in another undesirable stat, those 47 points are the most Pitt has ever scored against an FBS (Division I-A) opponent at Heinz Field.
"We had some man coverage breakdowns," Addazio said. "We call it mental error and it happened a few times. I though going in (Sunseri) was a heck of a player. He's a veteran senior guy and was able to make plays and we had some breakdowns in there that helped him, but he was still able to make plays."
All sorts of plays, as a matter of fact.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Heater's group got manhandled in the first half, allowing 31 points and 334 total yards, including 14 points in the last 2 minutes, 32 seconds of the second quarter. That surge, which included a 1-yard touchdown run from Graham and a 4-yard scoring pass from Sunseri to Graham with just a second left before halftime, turned a 10-point game into a 31-7 rout in process.
Sunseri was sacked just once, and that's becoming a trend that paints a picture of a bigger problem. Unless Temple brings some extra pressure via the blitz, it really doesn't get to the opposing quarterback much via its front four. The Owls now have 18 sacks this season, and 8.5 of them have come from linebackers or defensive backs. Senior defensive end John Youboty, who brought down Sunseri for the team's only sack Saturday, leads the team in sacks with three.
"Passing the ball starts with us up front," Youboty said. "If we put pressure on the quarterback they won't be allowed to pass the ball. We have to do a better job as a defensive line rushing the passer."
Pitt came into Saturday's game with the Big East's sixth-ranked rushing defense and the conference's second-ranked passing defense, but the Panthers instead bottled up Harris to the tune of just 16 yards on 10 first-half carries. Coyer, meanwhile, went 7 of 11 passing in the first half and got Temple on the scoreboard with his play-action touchdown pass to Booth. That touchdown was set up by a 77-yard kickoff return by senior tailback Matt Brown, who has been hampered by a left leg injury.
Brown, who prides himself on his durability, has had an especially frustrating season. He suffered a sprained right ankle against Maryland and then sustained his current injury in Temple's win over South Florida back on Oct. 6, the last time he registered a carry as a running back.
Brown didn't return in the second half to return kickoffs. Addazio said he did it because Brown re-tweaked the injury in his left leg and didn't want to put him in harm's way.
"I didn't even know that was going to happen," Brown said of not going back out for the opening kickoff of the second half. "I was ready to receive the kickoff return after halftime. And then just on the spot, coach told me. I wasn't trying to hear it, but he's the boss."
And while he said he understood his coach's decision and that Addazio explained that Temple needs him for the rest of the season, sitting out didn't sit well with Brown.
"He explained it just like that," Brown said of his conversation with Addazio. "But, you know, I just want to play ball, so it's just kind of frustrating. I know my coach is doing what he knows best, but it's just frustrating because I want to play. I get needles in my leg before the game. I want to play ball. I don't do all of this for no reason, so it's frustrating."
So, too, was a Temple miscue opened the floodgates early on. After the Owls forced Pitt into a three-and-out on the game's first drive, Temple cornerback Anthony Robey didn't get out of the way on a Pitt punt, and Panthers safety Eric Williams recovered the ball at the Temple 39. Seven plays later, Shell scored from a yard out, and Kevin Harper's extra point made it 7-0 with 10:37 left in the first quarter. Pitt scored again when Sunseri hit backup tight end J.P. Holtz with an 18-yard touchdown pass at the 4:46 mark of the first quarter to make it a 14-0 game before Coyer and the Owls answered with the scoring pass to Booth.
A Harper 32-yard field goal made it 17-7 Pitt with 9:40 left in the second quarter before the late second-half flurry gave the Panther's their 24-point halftime cushion.
Temple showed some signs of life in the third quarter when Harris scored on the 14-yard run before Harper's 38-yard field goal made it a 34-14 game with 8:03 left in the third. Then Coyer led a 15-play, 67-yard drive that culminated in a 45-yard Brandon McManus field goal and cut the Panthers' lead to 34-17.
After Temple came up with a rare defensive stop, the Owls actually had a bit of momentum and the ball near midfield, but a penalty and then a case of will over skill derailed the Owls one final time.
To start the fourth quarter, Coyer popped off a 17-yard run, but a Booth holding penalty brought it back. Coyer then completed a 5-yard pass to wide receiver Deon Miller, but the junior had the ball taken away from him by Pitt cornerback Lafayette Pitts and the Panthers took over at the Temple 37. Two Graham runs later - one for 35 yards and a touchdown run of two yards - Pitt had a 40-17 lead. The extra point failed on a bad snap, but it didn't matter.
"There was a part of me that really felt (that his team could come back). I said to myself, 'We'll go back out in the second half, and we'll really get going' - and we did," Addazio said. "And we almost gave ourselves a chance to pop in that game at that one point. We had that critical holding penalty where we had an explosive play with Chris, and that kind of buried it for us right there. We got buried right there."
Addazio got backup quarterback Clinton Granger some snaps on Temple's first full series of the fourth quarter, which started with 13:57 left to play, and the 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior got the Owls down to the Pitt 2-yard line before he got stopped on a fourth-and-goal run for no gain. Granger finished 2 of 3 passing for 52 yards, with 44 of them coming on a shovel pass to fullback Kenny Harper on that series.
Incidentally, Granger revealed that Addazio initially had plans to get him into the game sooner.
"At halftime, I was told that I was going to get in on the second series, depending on how Chris reacted," Granger said. "He went down and scored and he had the hot hand for a while. So I had the leg (up) on what time I was going to get in."
Senior running back Matt Brown said it's his left ankle that's ailing him now, not the right ankle he sprained against Maryland. But after Saturday's game, he said he's not so sure it's a sprain this time.
"You'd have to ask the doctor for that," Brown said. "I know what a sprain feels like and it doesn't feel like a sprain, so I'll keep going. They told me it was a bunch of different things. I don't know the medical terms for them, but that's what they tell me."
Temple team physician Dr. Ray Moyer said through a Temple spokesperson that Brown's injury is, in fact, a sprain. Either way, Brown is playing through pain, even when he's reeling off a 77-yard kickoff return like he did Saturday.
"I try to take a deep breath when I step because I can't just put my foot down lackadaisically. I've got to be aware of what angle I'm putting it at. I don't have my full speed; I don't have my burst. I don't have my momentum. But it's part of the game and I've got to play through it. The great players play through it."