Undefeated SMU outplayed Temple (5-3, 2-2) last week, in part to their multiple big plays through the air. The Owls didn’t respond against another potent American Athletic Conference offense this week, losing 63-21 against the UCF Knights (6-2, 2-1). While Temple surrendered six passing touchdowns last week, their run defense proved to be the culprit in their most recent lopsided defeat.

UCF starting running back Greg McCrae was unavailable Saturday with a knee injury, but junior running back Otis Anderson carved up the Owls’ defense to the tune of 205 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. That’s good for a 12.1 average, and he helped the Knights escape a situation at their own eight-yard line with two rushes for 61 yards. Backup sophomore quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. would take it in from six yards to put UCF up, 21-7.

Minor Bright Spots

Later in the second quarter, Temple wide receiver Branden Mack caught a pristine fade pass from junior quarterback Anthony Russo and dominated the cornerback by escaping the defender’s grasp and running upfield for the 75-yard touchdown reception. The senior eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark for the fourth time this season, finishing with 104 receiving yards on five receptions. 

A returning wide receiver Randle Jones hauled in a 32-yard fade from Russo, the senior’s first catch and touchdown this season.

Another one of Temple’s positives on a night dominated by UCF’s running in space was their muffed punt recovery converted into a touchdown from senior running back Jager Gardner. Temple cut the Knights’ lead to seven, down 28-21 at the half. Whatever UCF head coach Josh Heupel preached at halftime must’ve been some fly-on-the-wall material. UCF scored an unanswered 35 points in the second half and looked fearsome on both ends.

Abysmal Second Half

Temple’s second half reads as followed: 25 plays, nine yards, two interceptions, and one muffed kick return. 

UCF’s running backs capitalized on holes and tapped into their breakaway speed, as the Knights recorded a whopping 385 yards on 48 carries. Senior running back Adrian Killings Jr. (four rushes, 52 yards) took it 48 yards to pay-dirt in the second quarter and sophomore Bentavious Thomson (10 rushes, 87 yards) added two second half touchdowns on the ground. It was a three-headed monster for UCF at running back, as they slashed Temple’s rush defense.

They relieved a large amount of pressure off of freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel’s arm. Gabriel finished only 10-of-21 passing, but he completed a pivotal fourth-and-6 for a 28-yard touchdown to junior wideout Tre Nixon. Temple trailed 21-14 in the second quarter, at that point, and the completion might’ve been a momentum adjusting play.

Gabriel complemented UCF’s running backs in the first half, finding No. 1 wideout Gabriel Davis on a 36-yard fade pass then connecting with junior tight end Jake Hescock for a 20-yard touchdown after Temple failed to sub and recover on UCF’s first scoring drive. Gabriel threw for three touchdowns while Russo’s strong first half was arguably overshadowed by his ghastly second half.

Russo’s Struggles Continue

Saturday marked Russo’s second straight game failing to reach the 200-yard passing mark, and he threw two interceptions, which could’ve turned into three if Branden Mack didn’t possess superhuman strength. Temple recorded negative-11 yards in Russo’s first three second-half drives before inserting sophomore Todd Centeio (3-for-6 passing for 22 yards, three rushes for five yards). Centeio couldn’t muster a scoring drive in his only second-half drive and Russo re-entered. 

On a pass intended for senior receiver Isaiah Wright, junior cornerback Aaron Robinson didn’t have to move in order to pick off Russo’s pass. Russo might not have seen Robinson, but there were defenders in the area. The pass looked like it was intended for Robinson more than Wright, who was a couple of yards more upfield.

On Temple’s ensuing drive, Robinson again picked off Russo. Robinson had terrific leverage on sophomore wideout Jadan Blue and Russo’s decision making again looked questionable. The junior quarterback finished just 12-of-24 passing for 199 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, furthering the uncertainty Temple will receive at quarterback moving forward.

Bigger Problem Than Just The QB

Temple’s tandem at running back featuring freshman Re’Mahn Davis and senior Jager Gardner didn’t fare much better. Davis rushed for a mere 26 yards on 12 carries while Gardner totaled just 13 yards on 11 rushes. The Owls’ offensive line didn’t provide a push, similar to last week’s lost against SMU, and allowed four sacks on Saturday. 

Between the run defense and the offense, there should be more concern with how Temple isn’t formulating successful offensive drives. To muster just nine yards of total offense on 25 second-half plays places more pressure on the defense, who couldn’t hold UCF in the second half. Having senior center Matt Hennessey out was a blow Temple had to adjust for, and the Owls don’t get respite when they travel to take on USF (4-4, 2-2) in two weeks (Thursday night).

With their loss Saturday, Temple sits in third place in the AAC East division at 2-2. A conference championship appearance looks pretty unlikely to happen at this point. The Owls are in the midst of adversity and need to maximize their bye week next week.