Inside the Nest Host
Temple has not only been fighting for wins each Saturday in the AAC, but it’s also been fighting Covid all year in an effort to stay on the field. On Wednesday, Covid won the final battle as the AAC cancelled the Owls season finale vs. Cincinnati.
Temple nearly had its game cancelled last Saturday against ECU due to Covid complications. However, the game was still played with ECU coming away with a dominating 28-3 win.
Cancelling Saturday’s season finale against nationally-ranked Cincinnati was the result of positive COVID-19 cases and ensuing contact tracing of student-athletes at both institutions. The game has officially been ruled a no contest, which means the Owls (1-6, 1-6) will finish 2020 with their lone win coming back on October 17 in the home opener against USF.
"I have held firm that the health and safety of our student-athletes is the most important thing to me,” Head Coach Rod Carey said. “We were on the borderline of shutting down for the past few weeks but with an increase in Covid protocol cases in the past few days, the decision was made to shut it down.”
As mentioned, this cancellation was not just because of Covid complications on North Broad. The Bearcats have been battling Covid this season too. Cincinnati had its game postponed against Tulsa on October 17 due to COVID-19 issues. That game was rescheduled for December 12, the week before the planned date of the conference championship game, which could very well be the Bearcats and the Golden Hurricane.
Regardless, Temple’s season is over with its first losing campaign since 2013.
"This COVID-19 pandemic is real and it affects us in many ways,” Carey said. “I'm really proud of our team and this staff for all the work they put in to be ready to play each week. Our record is not indicative of how tough and relentless this group of young men are. We all look forward to decompressing, learning from this experience, and coming back stronger in 2021."
Inside the Nest Host
No fans. No cheerleaders. No band. Then at gametime, with the national telecast ready to go, there were no players, coaches or referees either. Temple’s season got even odder on Saturday afternoon after a 50-minute delay thanks to a Covid scare just minutes before kickoff.
“Honestly I didn’t think we were going to play and then got told we were going to play,” Head Coach Rod Carey said. “We had five guys an hour before the game going into Covid protocol. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Coach Carey might not have known what to expect, but the result was pretty much as expected with the Owls (1-6, 1-6) dropping their 5th-straight game, 28-3 to the visiting ECU Pirates (2-6, 2-5).
According to Carey, his team learned just 45 minutes prior to the game that one of its players might be positive with Covid-19. The game was officially delayed just three minutes prior to kickoff. When all of the dust settled, the Owls did have a positive test. And they did end up taking the field minus CB Christian Braswell, CB Kimere Brown, DE Arnold Ebiketie, LB George Reid, and CB Nate Wyatt -- all now in Covid protocol.
“We didn’t really know (if we were going to play),” Defensive Tackle Dan Archibong said. “(Carey) just kind of said we may get canceled, we may not, so keep your head in the game.”
All five players were scheduled to play on special teams in addition to their primary positions on defense. Temple allowed a 95-yard touchdown on a kickoff return to ECU’s Tyler Snead without nearly half of its starters.
And while the health of the Temple players was the biggest concern, it wasn’t their only concern. Heading into Saturday’s matchup, freshman Quarterback Matt Duncan was scheduled to start his first game in college football. But about an hour before kickoff, it was announced that Duncan was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. Freshman walk-on Kamal Gray, the team’s 5th quarterback at the start of the season, found out that he'd be the starter around 8:40 Saturday morning, just 10 minutes before the team meeting. Wide Receiver and former high school Quarterback Branden Mack and Running Back Tayvon Ruley were listed as the number two and three quarterbacks on the depth chart.
“I’ve imagined this moment my whole life,” Gray said, who finished 10/21 passing for 95 yards and 2 interceptions on the day. “Little different without fans or anything, so it was just kind of another football game. I went out and just tried to do my job the best I could. I always try to keep my composure because the team feeds off me. If I’m riled up and too antsy, they’re going to feel that way too.”
Gray played the entire first half with mixed results. His first red-zone interception late in the half led to a late ECU score and a 21-3 halftime lead for the Pirates. As a result, Mack started at quarterback for the first two drives in the third quarter.
“Just wanted to calm down Kamal,” Carey said. “Let him see the game, and Branden brings a little different element that we didn’t have with Kamal. That was it.”
“It felt pretty good,” Mack said. “It was pretty exciting. I got to go out there and show my athletic capabilities. Wide receiver is my position, but it just felt good to be back there and switch something up.”
The plan is to have Anthony Russo back from the Covid protocol list next week against nationally-ranked Cincinnati, but Carey warned that we may not see the same quarterback fans saw from Russo in October.
“From what I know, (Russo) comes out of protocol on Tuesday,” Carey said. “I don’t know what kind of shape he’s in. I don’t know where his arm’s at.”
The season finale versus Cincinnati will likely be Temple’s toughest of the year. The Bearcats come to town with a New Year’s Day bowl game, and maybe even a spot in the college football playoffs, on their mind. Meanwhile, the Owls already know they’ll be without several players due to injury in addition to the ones in Covid protocol.
WR Jadan Blue, CB Linwood Crump, OL Joseph Hooper, OL Adam Klein, OL Vincent Picozzi, and SAF Amir Tyler all missed Saturday’s game with injuries. This list doesn’t even include guys like WR Randle Jones and LB Isaiah Graham-Mobley, which likely means they’re done for the year. RB Tayvon Ruley was also injured during Saturday’s game and did not return.
“It’s building character,” Mack said. “We’re learning how to fight through adversity, because that’s all we’ve been fighting through all season.”
“It’s definitely chaotic,” Archibong said. “I think it’s kind of how this year has been. Just 2020 man. Chaotic.”
Saturday’s game will be at the Linc. The time and TV network are still TBD.
Inside the Nest Host
Head Coach Rod Carey has said on multiple occasions that COVID and injuries can’t be used as excuses for losses this season. But at some point, there has to be that realization.
Prior to Saturday night's game versus UCF, four more players were added to the COVID protocol list that included Anthony Russo. Temple’s starting quarterback was scheduled to return after missing the past two games with a shoulder injury.
With Russo out, all eyes turned to redshirt sophomore Re-al Mitchell, who was making his first collegiate start. But Mitchell’s first two drives ended with two turnovers that both turned into UCF touchdowns, and the Owls never recovered, dropping their 4th-straight game, 38-13.
“Turning the ball over is unacceptable,” Carey said. “I don’t care if you’re a true freshman or if you’re a fifth-year senior, it’s unacceptable. We got to have more ball security.”
Temple (1-5, 1-5) turned the ball over three times on Saturday. Each turnover had its flaws with pass protection and blocking on the outside. With so many players in-and-out of the lineup, several players seemed out of step on their assignments. Several times this season the killer plays have been self-inflicted.
“We always stay positive,” Running Back Tayvon Ruley said. “If we stop beating ourselves we can win games.”
In addition to missing Russo, the Owls were also without starting Wide Receiver Randle Jones, Offensive Lineman Michael Niese and Quarterback Trad Beatty, who was splitting time with Mitchell prior to being injured in last week’s game.
Two more Temple starters were hurt Saturday night, leaving their status for next week uncertain. Offensive Lineman Joseph Hooper limped off the field under his own power, while Cornerback Linwood Crump needed assistance getting off the field after landing awkwardly during a 70-yard reception from UCF’s Jaylon Robinson late in the 3rd quarter.
This leaves Temple without its starting quarterback, running back, a single-digit wide receiver, multiple offensive linemen, its single-digit middle linebacker, and now perhaps one of its starting defensive backs too. And this news doesn’t include the many players on the depth chart who are also out with either an injury or on COVID protocol.
“This team has fought the entire time. It’s just we’re not executing when we’re fighting as much as we need to be executing,” Carey said. “The fight has always been there.”
The Owls continue to push on with the final two games of the season both at the Linc. Temple plays ECU next Saturday at noon on ESPN+, before hosting nationally-ranked Cincinnati on November 28th. But the main concern for Carey might not be who is on the other sideline as much as who he’s got left on his sideline.
Inside the Nest Host
For a third-straight Saturday, Temple football found the second half to be an unfortunate part of the game. The Owls (1-4, 1-4) took a surprising 13-10 lead over nationally-ranked SMU (7-1, 4-1) into halftime, but the second half was a different story. The No. 18 Mustangs outscored the Owls 37-10 in the second half in route to a 47-23 win.
“Obviously disappointed,” Head Coach Rod Carey said postgame. “We had our chances.”
The Owls have now been outscored a combined 96-24 in the second half of their last three games combined -- all losses. Moments following the opening kickoff, it was announced that 15 players wouldn’t play in Saturday’s game due to COVID protocol including starting linebacker Jordan Magee. The Owls had 13 players out last week due to COVID protocol. In addition to the COVID restrictions, Temple lost a few key starters due to injury in the first half that shriveled the depth chart even further.
“When you’re down this many guys, you’re going to run out of gas,” Carey said.
The injury issues for Temple are best explained as part of the Owls first touchdown. On the first offensive play from scrimmage, Quarterback Trad Beatty connected with Randle Jones on a quick pass to the outside that ended in a 75-yard touchdown. But by halftime, both players were injured and ruled out for the rest of the game. Now the concern is how much time they will miss.
“They’re out,” said a frustrated Carey. “I don’t know (how long), but they’re out.”
Due to Beatty’s injury, the only healthy quarterback was Re-Al Mitchell, who threw for 82 yards and touchdown. Mitchell also ran for 66 yards averaging nearly four rushing yards per attempt.
“(I felt) more comfortable than I thought (I would) honestly,” Mitchell said.
“(Beatty and Mitchell) were both a lot calmer,” Carey said. “More sense of comfort. I was pleased to see the improvement.”
Due to Beatty’s injury, Anythony Russo got dressed during halftime in case he was needed in an emergency role. Carey stressed Russo is still unable to throw the football due to his bad shoulder.
“We would have used him to hand the ball off,” Carey said. “We wouldn’t have run him or thrown him.”
Temple is down several key guys on both sides of the football due to injuries and COVID, but they’re not making any excuses.
“Just our preparation and making sure the next man up is ready for the opportunity,” Linebacker Will Kwenkeu said. “We just have to make sure whoever is up next is ready.”
That will be a key message, especially in the running back room with the departure of Ray Davis this week to the transfer portal. Each active running back on the roster saw action on Saturday.
“I thought the running backs ran hard,” Carey said. “We ran harder. I was pleased with that. In some critical situations, we’re not running the ball as hard as we need to.”
Davis’ departure was a shock to Tayvon Ruley, who saw the bulk of the runs on Saturday gaining 66 yards on 15 attempts with a touchdown. Ruley talked to Davis on Wednesday following the news in preparation for this week’s game.
“He said listen don’t worry about me,” Ruley said. “Do what you have to do.”
The motto of doing what you have to do may be a good mindset for every Temple player moving forward with so many new names seeing game action.
“Stay healthy, get my body right, be ready for next week,” Mitchell said.
Temple will be under the lights next Saturday at UCF for a 7:30 kickoff on ESPNU. It is Temple’s final road game of the season.