BY ROCK HOFFMAN
Annapolis, MD – Temple returned to the gridiron for the first time in over nine months but came up short, falling to Navy 31-29 in an American Athletic Conference game at Navy-Marine Corp Memorial Stadium. The Midshipmen (2-2, 2-0 American) never trailed but had to hold on as the Owls (0-1, 0-1 American) scored twice in the fourth but both times failed to convert two-point conversion tries. The difference turned out to be a 50-yard field goal by Navy’s Bijan Nicholos with just under five minutes to go in the game.
Down 11 going to the final quarter, the Owls scored less than a minute in when quarterback Anthony Russo scored his, career-high, second rushing touchdown of the game. Trailing 28-23, the Owls went for two but missed.
On the next series, Navy would control the ball for over nine minutes for the second time in the game but were forced to try the long field goal when defensive tackle Kris Banks stuffed Navy quarterback Dalen Morris for a five-yard loss and Isaiah Graham-Mobley sacked him on the next play. Nicholos came through with the first field goal of 50 yards or more for the Midshipmen in nine years.
Russo mixed the run and the pass as Temple moved down the field for the potential tying score. The big plays along the way were a fourth-down conversion pass to Randle Jones and a 35-yard completion to tight end David Martin-Robinson that gave the Owls the ball at the two. Running back Ray Davis would take it in from the one-yard line but the two to tie (a pass to Davis) failed.
“Our pad level was just too high, it was a simple thing," said Temple head coach Rod Carey explaining why the Navy triple-option rushing attack was able to gain 251 yards and be dominant at times. "It wasn’t an X’s and O’s, it isn’t a personnel thing, it was a fundamental thing. Our pad level was just too damn high. We had it defended up but when your pads up three inches against that type of team you are going to go backward.”
In the first half, the Owls couldn't stop the Midshipmen. The only possession Navy didn't score in the half was their final one which started deep in their own territory, in the final minute of the second quarter. The Mids took the opening kickoff and just ran the ball down the Owls throat, they went 75 yards on 17 plays (all runs) and used 9 minutes and 38 seconds to do it. Along the way, seven different players carried the ball with Jamale Carothers taking it the final yard for the score.
The Owls answered with a 25-yard Will Mobley field goal, Russo was six-of-nine on the drive with two of his incompletions coming in the end zone, in goal-to-go situations.
Myles Fells returned the ensuing kickoff 34-yards (it was the longest kickoff return for Navy since Malcolm Perry had a 58-yard return against Temple in 2017). After defensive end Arnold Ebiketie forced a bad pitch by Morris, the Mids faced a third-and-14 at the Temple 38. Morris threw a screen pass to CJ Williams; it wasn’t an Andy Reid coached thing of beauty but it was effective as it gave Navy a first-and-goal at the two-yard line and Chance Warren would score from there.
The Owls quickly matriculated the ball down the field, Russo had an 18-yard pass to Jaden Blue, Davis had a 17-yard run, they were aided by a 15-yard penalty against Navy and Martin-Robinson had a 13-yard catch to set up a one-yard touchdown run by Russo.
With their next series, Navy fullback Nelson Smith busted up the middle for a 26-yard score. The key to the drive was two-plays earlier when Morris connected with Mychal Cooper, on another screen pass, for 12 yards on fourth-and six play at the Temple 45.
“We prepared super well all week,” said linebacker Graham-Mobley. “We tried to get an edge on them but we haven’t seen them run screens all year. So, it was something that was new to us.”
Russo moved the Owls with completions to Blue, Davis, Mack, and Martin-Robinson but John Marshall intercepted him in the red zone to end the threat and it was 21-10 at halftime.
“We said, this off-season, the red zone efficiency and scoring touchdowns in the red zone was our biggest thing,” said Russo, who was 21 of 30 passing for 206 yards with one touchdown pass and one interception; he was not sacked. “For me to throw an interception late in the [first]half and, on the first drive, miss Blue on a wide-open touchdown which would have given us seven points instead of three. That’s the first two things that stand out to me, those two plays in the red zone that changed the game. We could’ve had a different outcome if those two plays ended up the way we wanted them to.”
In the third quarter, the Owls had to punt on their first series but the defense rose to the occasion and forced a three-and-out. On the Owls' next possession, Russo teamed up with Mack for a seven-yard score to cap a drive that relied mostly on the running of Davis (eight carries for 43 yards, he finished with 97).
It didn’t take long for Navy to respond, they went right down the field with fullbacks Carothers and Smith carrying the ball on eight of the nine plays, it was Smith who gashed the Owls defense for the score, this time he went 22 yards.
“That is who we are,” said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo when asked about the fullbacks, who accounted for 173 yards rushing and three touchdowns. “You have to get that established. Nelson and Jamale ran hard and our line blocked really hard. We challenged them and they responded.”
“Every game they tell us we have to get the fullback dive going to get the game started,” added Smith, who finished with 120 yards. The senior has two career 100-yard games – both against Temple. “The offensive line did a great job. All me and Jamale had to do was hit the hole and it was there. I cannot commend those guys enough. It was five yards before I was even getting touched.”
After Smith’s second touchdown, the Mids were up 28-17 heading to the final quarter.
Email Rock Hoffman at Rock@footballstories.com