USF had a shot to win its first game on the road since its 45-20 win over at East Carolina last year. And it looked to be a feasible task, with USF up 21-17 at halftime.
It even looked feasible on the Bulls’ last drive.
But USF (1-4, 0-3) let an 11-point lead slip away with a chance to tie it on the final drive, giving up 22 second-half points and falling 39-37 to Temple (1-1, 1-1) on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Saturday.
“This one hurts,” coach Jeff Scott said. “We made some critical mistakes that you cannot make in that type of close ballgame and expect to win.”
After having its 11-point lead dissolve, USF had a chance to tie it in the final minutes. With Temple leading 39-31, USF took three minutes and 21 seconds to move within two.
Freshman back Leo Parker extended his arm into the end zone for his first career touchdown, giving USF a chance to tie the game with just over a minute remaining.
The ensuing two-point conversion failed, however, when quarterback Noah Johnson ran into a brick wall of defenders.
“That’s a play that we had success with in the past, and we tried to do it a different way and it didn’t work,” Scott said. “That’s on me as a coach. They had a good call and we didn’t give our guys a good chance there on that play.”
A failed onside kick put the final nail in the coffin. The Bulls had fooled the Owls twice before, even recovering once at the end of the first half, but the third one didn’t fool Temple.
“You got about an 8% chance to get an onside kick,” Scott said. “They have enough time there to run the clock out.
“We knew … that was do or die and wanted to talk about it and give our guys a chance to go execute the play, and it just didn’t work out.”
USF took the lead twice — once in the second quarter and again the next time the Bulls had the ball.
The first lead came off a 28-yard toss from quarterback Jordan McCloud to receiver DeVontres Dukes. It was the second consecutive series in which USF scored, with the Bulls forcing two scoreless Temple drives. Before that, USF had scored its first touchdown of the game, a 13-yard pass from McCloud to receiver Randall St. Felix after the Bulls trailed 10-0 in the first six minutes of the first quarter.
For the first time this season, a majority of USF’s scores came by air, with McCloud throwing three touchdown passes. He went 15-of-26 for 182 yards.
The Bulls receivers averaged 11.3 yards per reception, with Dukes’ catch in the end zone being the longest. Having the receivers stretch passes and get more yards after catches was important, according to McCloud.
“That was something we’d talked about after the Cincinnati game, we had to start getting more YAC yards,” he said. “We just got to put the ball in the playmakers’ hands and all them guys did great today.”
The second lead change in USF’s favor came after the Owls retook the lead following the Bulls’ first two touchdowns. A 2-yard dash by Johnson put USF ahead and kept it ahead through the team’s next four drives.
A fumble by back Kelley Joiner on USF’s 14-yard line four minutes into the fourth quarter was scooped up by Temple’s Arnold Ebiketie, who took it back 11 yards for a touchdown and gave the Owls a lead they would keep for the rest of the game.
From Scott’s perspective, it was a case of miscommunication between McCloud and Joiner.
“You can’t make it up, they just put it on the ground, they pick it up and then run it in,” Scott said. “Comes down to the basic things, being able to have good meshes and haven’t really had a problem with that this year, but unfortunately our first problem with that came at the wrong time.”
Miscommunications leading to three lost fumbles and 11 penalties for 111 yards cut deep.
While the offense, for the most part, kept up with the Owls, the defense failed to follow suit. USF had the ball for nearly 28 minutes, while Temple had it for over 32 minutes.
Individual playmakers, like linebacker Dwyane Boyles, who returned after being out with an unspecified back injury, led with nine tackles and a blocked field goal. Safety Mekhi LaPointe and defensive back Daquan Evans both had interceptions for 21 and 56 yards, respectively.
Overall, the Bulls were burned on third downs — the Owls were 9-of-17.
“We have the right game plan, we just need to execute the game plan. We do the work on first and second,” Boyles said.
For the Bulls to come so close yet fail to win their first road game in almost a full calendar year hurt, but this defeat cut even deeper, Scott said.
“This one definitely hurts, I really felt like for the first time in the last four games that our guys came out playing to win the game,” he said. “Our guys that came out with a different mindset, different attitude.
“They literally laid everything they had on the line.”