The nation learned a lot about Temple football on Saturday night.
Under the lights of Lincoln Financial Field, the No. 21 Owls fought, they scraped and nearly clawed out a win against No. 9 Notre Dame in a nationally televised game.
No, but it’s a loss that showed TU’s top-25 ranking wasn’t a result of a weak schedule.
“We proved we’re a really good football team,” Owls head coach Matt Rhule said after Temple lost, 24-20. “One of the better teams in the country.
“Notre Dame’s a great team, a lot of respect for them. They made some great, great plays. They made one more play than we did tonight.”
With 4:45 left in the fourth quarter and Temple leading, 20-17, the Owls were a defensive stand away from going back to North Broad Street 8-0.
A defense, which came through with two first-half red-zone interceptions that prevented ND from putting the game away, had the game in its hands.
Exactly where the Owls wanted it.
“We wanted this game to go to the fourth quarter,” quarterback P.J. Walker said, “and they just made one more play than us.”
Temple cornered Notre Dame into a 3rd-and-5 at its own 31-yard line, but Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer connected on a seven-yard pass to Roman Catholic product Will Fuller.
On the next play, Kizer hit tight end Alize Jones for a 45-yard gain, which put ND in the red zone. Two players later, Fuller made another big play that won ND the game.
Fuller beat the Owls’ Cover 2 defense for his ninth TD of the season. Big plays are nothing new to Fuller, who reeled in a game-winning TD with 12 seconds left at Virginia on Sept. 12.
“We gave up a couple of big plays — that’s unfortunate,” Rhule said of his defense. “I thought they showed heart. We gave them the ball in plus territory and caused some turnovers.
“But the big play at the end and the big play on the long run (hurt us). Our defense hung in there, but gave up too many big plays.”
For most of the night, TU played cornerback Tavon Young man-to-man on Fuller, but switched to Cover 2 on the TD.
Young was flagged for two defensive pass interferences in the loss. Before ND’s go-ahead drive, Young held Fuller to just three catches for 22 yards.
“Will Fuller is one of the most dominant receivers in college football,” Rhule said. “He had no big plays until the last one.
“We tell Tavon to be physical. He just had some tough breaks. I thought he answered the call and I’m really proud of the way he played. We’ll live with some of those things.”
For a Temple football program, a lot of good came out of Saturday night’s loss — more good than bad.
The Owls’ defense held an Irish offense that entered averaging 38.3 points to 24 points and Walker had a strong game in the spotlight despite the final stat line.
Walker completed just 43.3 percent of his passes, but he threw the ball well against the Irish and also showed a running element of his game he’s lacked this season.
The junior QB was also doomed by some drops. Ventell Bryant dropped a TD and Jahad Thomas had a drop on a 3rd-and-1 the play before TU took a 20-17 lead.
“He took hit after hit,” Rhule said of Walker. “We struggled a little bit in the first half protecting him, but we did a good job in the second half getting the spread run game going.
“I thought he was fearless. If we make a couple more catches, he has a big-time game.”
Against ND, Walker finished 13 of 30 for 188 yards, a touchdown and an interception. His INT came in the game’s final moments, after the Irish had pulled ahead, 24-20, when KeiVarae Russell made a strong play on the ball.
Walker added 38 yards on six carries with a few double-digit second-half runs: a 10-yarder in the third quarter and a 15-yarder and 21-yarder in the fourth quarter.
“It’s just a zone-read play,” Walker said of the 21-yard run. “They were running over it. Jaylon (Smith) was actually overrunning it as well. I felt I could beat him off the edge and I did.”
While TU kept running back C.J. Prosise from making an impact, the Owls struggled to contain Kizer in the run game.
The sophomore QB burned the Owls for 143 yards on 17 carries, including a 79-yard touchdown run on a read-option in the second quarter. He also threw for 299 yards and a TD, but did have two INTs.
“You saw his speed,” defensive lineman Praise Martin-Oguike, who had the Owls’ first interception, said. “He is a fast player, and even with a pass rush you just have to contain him.
“You know any minute he can get away from you. … There seemed to be some sort of miscommunication. I don’t know, I have to see it on film.”
On film, the Owls are going to see some mistakes and missed opportunities, but the film will also show …
“That we can play with anybody in the country,” said Thomas, who had 82 yards and his 13th rushing touchdown of the season.
“We knew that — a lot of people had us as the underdog, but we loving having the chip on the shoulder, that’s kind of the brand in Philly.”
*Story originally published on NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com on Nov. 1, 2015.
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