A game-saving defensive stop gave Temple one more chance. Left with just 32 seconds, the Owls needed to go 70 yards to pull off an improbable comeback and preserve hope for an American Athletic Conference division title. Scott Frost’s UCF Knights clung desperately to the 25-7 lead they once held and watched slowly diminish into a 25-20 advantage. In the friendly confines of Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando, they braced for all Matt Rhule’s Owls could muster.
At the time, the mid-October game in 2016 was just that. Over six years later, the college football landscape changed dramatically. Frost returned to his native Nebraska the following year for a climactic resurgence that never was. Finally, in September of last year, his time ran out. Rhule, two coaching stops removed from that 2016 season, accepted the Nebraska head coach job two months later. History books forever contain that game between UCF and Temple. There’s the score, the stats, the standings and everything that happened after. Rewatching the game provides a deeper dive into what transpired after at Nebraska. And what may still come.
Frost accepted the UCF job after a winless 2015 season. The Golden Knights immediately shutout South Carolina State before traveling to No. 5 Michigan. They went into that game with Temple 3-2, having just beat East Carolina 47-29 to start the conference slate. Rhule went into his third season as Temple’s head coach and they were 3-3 after six games with losses to Penn State, Army and a one-score loss to conference foe Memphis. The Owls just came off a 6-6 season the previous season and went into UCF’s Homecoming game hopeful to turn their fortunes around.
Temple’s first defensive drive didn’t help that case. UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton stepped into the pocket with little pressure from a four-man rush and hit receiver Tre’Quan Smith in stride on an inside slant. Smith ran into the end zone untouched. The Golden Knights needed just 71 seconds to go 70 yards in four plays on the game’s opening drive. Frost opted for a trick 2-point conversion, a misaligned end-around pass from the third-string quarterback to a wide open Aaron Cochran to take a 8-0 lead. Temple answered with a grinding 4-minute drive. Mindful of UCF’s aggression, the Owls called a screen on 1st and 15 at the opposing 28. Quarterback PJ Walker back pedaled and slipped the ball through traffic to running back Jahad Thomas. No one accounted for him and Thomas scampered 28 yards for the score. Rhule opted for the extra point and Temple trailed 8-7.
UCF’s ground game broke big gains and Temple’s special teams produced vicious hits. UCF extended its lead on a 42-yard field goal late in the first quarter and the stopped Temple on 4th and 2 at the opposite end of the field. The Golden Knights hit their stride when Milton lobbed the ball to Adrian Killins for a 16-yard touchdown. UCF forced a 3-and-out on the ensuing drive, then Milton kept a zone read and outran the defense for a 63-yard touchdown to put UCF up 25-7 in the second quarter. UCF again stopped Temple on 4th down.
RUN MACK RUN!!
— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) October 16, 2016
The Owls finally managed to close the gap with a 4-minute drive late in the second quarter on a 9-yard Thomas run. Rhule wants to win the “Middle 8″—last 4 minutes of the second quarter, first 4 of the third quarter. That score came with 2:35 left in the half.
Essentially, that’s where the tide shifted. The Owls came out in the second half with a methodical, 14-play, 7-minute drive that ended in a 32-yard field goal. Temple stuffed UCF for minus-3 yards on a 3-and-out then added a 41-yard field goal from Aaron Boumerhi to make it a five-point game. UCF’s next two possessions ended in a missed 43-yard field goal and an interception, giving the Owls life in the fourth quarter.
Temple started possession at its own 26 with 4:19 remaining. Thomas galloped for a 45-yard run on the drive’s first play before the Owls stalled. Rhule opted to go for it on 4th and 18 with just under 2 minutes remaining. He wasn’t sure they’d get the ball back after they made it to the UCF 23. They didn’t get it. But three straight stops gave Temple hope. With zero timeouts left and 70 yards to go in 32 seconds, the Owls took over.
“One of our receivers, Brodrick Yancy, said before that drive started that something great was going to happen, and we all believed him,” Temple receiver Keith Kirkwood said. “We trusted our coaches, trusted the process and we went down the field and made a huge play.”
Walker withstood pressure on first down and connected with Temple receiver Ventrell Bryant for a 20-yard gain to midfield. Twenty-six seconds left. Walker passed to Bryant again for 16 yards. Seventeen seconds. Walker found Bryant over the middle again for 26 yards down to UCF 9. Bryant, clearly exhausted, slowly got up. His visor cut his left cheek when tackled to the ground from behind. His left field of vision filled with blood and he wondered if he blacked out.
“I was just stumbling over to get my composure back,” Bryant remembered afterwards, “luckily Adonis Jennings told me, ‘Get up, get up, get up. We need you, we need you.”
Ten seconds left. The Owls hurried to the line, presumably to spike the ball. Walker told Penn Live afterwards he knew UCF was tired and wanted to keep the pedal down. Walker took the snap under center and Kirkwood went vertical in one-on-one pressure. After looking at film, Walker thought Kirkwood was probably the only receiver to run a route. Everyone else, including the linemen and some members of the UCF defense, expected to spike.
“We didn’t block a soul on the last play,” Rhule said after the game. “Some of the O-linemen thought we were spiking it I think.”
A UCF edge rusher hit Walker just after the throw, a lob towards the boundary. Kirkwood jumped 8-yard deep in the end zone and came down with it. Temple led 26-25, their first lead of the game, with 1 second left. UCF’s returner dropped the ensuing squib kick. Special teams, a point of emphasis from the Rhule coaching staff, ended the game with a swarming tackle.
Down by 5…
70 yards from the end zone…
32 seconds to play…
This. Finish. 😱 pic.twitter.com/AS8EXOcMUv
— Temple Football (@Temple_FB) October 16, 2016
That started Temple’s seven-game winning streak and a run to the American Athletic Conference Championship. Rhule left Temple before the bowl game for Baylor, leaving Ed Foley to coach the Military Bowl in interim. The Owls finished in the top 25 and with 10 wins for the second straight season, something the program had never done before. Temple won at least seven games in each of the next three seasons until falling on hard times once again.
UCF recovered from the stunning collapse by beating UConn the following week. The loss to Temple was UCF’s second of three one-score losses that season. Frost put those worries aside the next season for the perfect 13-0 run. They finished No. 6 in the final rankings and printed National Champions shirts after winning the Peach Bowl. Frost didn’t stick around and was welcomed in his native Nebraska with open arms. Then, well, you know the rest.