WEST POINT, NY - When it first started, things didn't look too promising.
There was a turnover on the opening kickoff. Passes sailed too far, high and wide. And an eight-point halftime deficit quickly grew to a 15-point hole.
But when it was over, Temple coach Al Golden called the Owls' 42-35 win over Army Saturday afternoon at West Point's Michie Stadium the biggest win of his 4-plus-year tenure on North Broad Street.
"In that kind of environment, to stay together, to be down 15 and then reel off 28, that's a big win and credit to our coaches," Golden said of his group, which improved to 4-1 heading into next Saturday's Mid-American Conference game at Northern Illinois. "(Offensive coordinator) Matt Rhule on offense called a great game in the second half. And then (defensive coordinator) Mark (D'Onofrio) just did a tremendous job settling the defense down. And, of course, the kids played really hard. That's the biggest win I've been around here."
Indeed, there will be several game balls to go around for this Temple win over a much-improved Army game that dropped to 3-2.
The first will go to sophomore tailback Matt Brown, who rushed for career highs of 226 yards and four touchdowns on 28 carries. The 5-foot-5, 170-pound speedster was sensational in filling in for fellow sophomore Bernard Pierce, who did not make the trip to West Point after suffering a sprained right ankle at Penn State a week ago.
Filling in for Pierce is nothing new for Brown, who posted a pair of 100-yard games last season against Kent State and Ohio while Pierce nursed a shoulder injury. But in scoring four touchdowns Saturday, he tied a single-game touchdown record for Michie Stadium that was first set by former Pitt great Tony Dorsett back in 1975.
Like any good back is trained to do, Brown gave credit to the five guys up front.
"My line, they did a great job opening up holes for me," Brown said, "giving me the opportunity to gain yards, so my praise goes to them."
When asked if he agreed with Golden's assessment that this was Temple's biggest win of Golden's tenure, Brown agreed.
He felt he had to.
"Yeah, I agree with him," Brown said. "The head coach said it. Dang right, I agree with it! But at halftime, we had to flip the switch. We knew we had to come out and win the game. From an offensive standpoint, we just wanted to put as many points on the board as possible."
Brown's touchdown runs of 3 and 42 yards gave Temple an early 13-7 lead, but Army quarterback Trent Steelman, who rushed for four touchdowns of his own, scored on a 7-yard run and then found wide receiver Austin Barr on a 31-yard scoring pass in the second quarter to give the Black Knights a 21-13 lead at halftime.
That lead grew to 28-13 when Steelman capped a 13-play, 74-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown plunge. That series chewed up 7 minutes, 2 seconds on the game clock, and things didn't look so good for Temple at that point, especially considering that quarterback Chester Stewart and the passing game weren't giving Brown much help at all.
Stewart, a 6-3, 214-pound redshirt junior, completed just 3 of 10 passes for 33 yards in the first half, still stuck on the overthrown passes and misfires that plagued him at Penn State last week.
And so it was that the offense needed a spark and some confidence, and Rhule dialed up a gem when he had Stewart fire a quick toss to wide receiver Joe Jones, who then lofted a 24-yard touchdown pass to fellow wideout Mike Campbell. To make up for a missed extra point earlier in the game, Temple went for the 2-point conversion and got it when Stewart rolled all the way to his right and found a wide-open Vaughn Charlton in the back left corner of the end zone.
At that point, Temple drew within a touchdown, down 28-21 with 6:00 left in the third quarter. The Owls eventually tied the game at the 14:29 mark of the fourth quarter when Stewart connected with Campbell on an 8-yard scoring pass. Campbell, who caught five passes for 124 yards, drew a key pass interference penalty earlier on that drive. He was initially ruled down at the 1-yard line, but replays showed he got into the end zone, and the play was ruled a touchdown.
Perhaps the game's biggest turning point came when Temple defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson burst through the line on Army's ensuing drive and dropped Steelman for a 12-yard loss on a sack on third down. The Black Knights were forced to punt, and Temple responded seven plays later with the go-ahead touchdown on Brown's 11-yard scoring run that made it 35-28 with 6:46 to go.
Wilkerson, a 6-5, 305-pound junior, had five tackles Saturday and leads the Owls this season with three sacks. On his big play, Wilkerson said he just followed the script.
"On that play, we had a movement called," Wilkerson explained. "And we're taught as D-linemen that you've got to redirect if you see the adjacent lineman coming at you. So on that play, I just did what I was always told and did what I was always taught to do and redirected, and I just made a play."
"He's unique," Golden said of his standout defensive tackle. "I don't want to go comparing him now, but he's a special talent."
Stewart rebounded a bit from his poor first half and finished 7 of 16 for 127 yards 48 of which came on an under thrown deep ball to Campbell on the go-ahead drive. And with the Owls holding on to a one-touchdown lead at 42-35 late in the game, Stewart ran for 5 yards on fourth down to finish off the game and deny Army any chance of having one more desperation crack at the end zone.
Stewart said he didn't do anything specific to settle himself in the second half, in which he went 4 for 6 for 84 yards.
"I didn't do anything different," Stewart said. "I think it was more the receivers. They came out more confident in the second half, so they made plays for me. All I had to do was deliver the ball."
Temple hurt itself initially when James Nixon fumbled the opening kickoff. Army's Ty Shrader recovered it, and the Black Knights scored four plays later on a Steelman 2-yard run. Alex Carlton's extra point made it 7-0 less than two minutes into the game.
Brown went to work on the Owls' ensuing possession, reeling off runs of 11 and 35 yards on his first two carries. Later, Stewart's 16-yard completion to Campbell, coupled with a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty, helped the Owls get down to the Army 9. Brown scored from three yards out two plays later, but a high snap from Chris Parthemore botched the extra point, and the Black Knights still held a 7-6 lead with 9:55 left in the first quarter.
After Carlton missed a 50-yard field goal attempt on Army's next possession, Brown took over again, getting loose for a 42-yard touchdown run that put Temple ahead by 13-7 with 4:05 left in the first quarter.
But as it did a week ago at Penn State, Temple's offense stalled after the first period, and it got no help from the passing game. The Owls would have been completely lost without Brown, who tallied 108 yards and those two scores on 11 first-half carries.
Meanwhile, Army forged ahead with two second-quarter touchdowns. The first came on a 7-yard run by Steelman with 9:08 left in the first half that put the Black Knights ahead by 14-13, and them Steelman caught Temple's defense sleeping when he found Barr on the 31-yard scoring pass that bumped the score to 21-13 with 2:07 left in the first half.
But there were no fiery halftime speeches, Golden said. The plan was just to keep going.
"It's not like the old days," Golden said. "We don't get panicked. We just kind of hang in there. We have a lot kids on the team, a lot of leaders. Everybody had poise. We made a couple different adjustments. It's unfortunate they came down and scored (on the first series of the second half), but it kind of jump-started us, and then we reeled off 28 straight."
OwlScoop.com Editor John Di Carlo can be reached at email@example.com.