Temple knew it had to play nearly a mistake-free game when facing a team that plays fast and scores faster.
Five turnovers, including three first-half miscues in their own territory, were a big part of what did the Owls in, in a 45-19 loss to No. 14 Central Florida before 25,877 on senior day Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Owls couldn’t keep up with the fleet Knights, who continued one of the most impressive two-year turnarounds in recent college football history.
As a result, Temple (5-6, 3-4 American Athletic Conference) will have to win its regular-season finale on Saturday at Tulsa to become bowl-eligible for the fourth straight year.
Tulsa (2-9, 1-6) shouldn’t be a pushover. The Golden Hurricane lost on Thursday at South Florida, 27-20. That’s the same South Florida team that trounced Temple, 43-7.
Meanwhile, UCF (10-0, 7-0) has a showdown on Friday against visiting South Florida (9-1, 6-1), with the winner claiming the East Division championship and earning a berth in the AAC title game.
Temple played in the previous two AAC championship games, but this year’s edition was too green, too banged up, and too short of talent when competing against teams of UCF’s caliber.
For the first time in four games, Owls quarterback Frank Nutile didn’t display the magic that had revived Temple’s season.
The Owls had been 2-1 under Nutile and very much could have been 3-0 had they not suffered a defensive lapse at the end of regulation in a 31-28 overtime loss at Army.
Against UCF, Temple trailed 31-13 at halftime and Nutile had completed just 11 of 25 passes for 83 yards and two interceptions. Even though he wasn’t sacked in the first half, UCF put plenty of heat on him, forcing him to throw into tight coverage.
The three first-half turnovers, all in the second quarter, led to 17 points for a UCF team that entered the game leading the nation in scoring, averaging 48.6 points per game.
When asked if the game was lost in the second quarter, coach Geoff Collins didn’t need to say much.
“Yes,” he said.
Nutile finished 17 of 40 for 201 yards, two touchdowns, and four interceptions. After the game, Nutile said he got up in front of the team and apologized to the seniors for his performance.
“You are not going to win a game when you throw four interceptions,” Nutile said. “I definitely take this one on the chin and can’t wait to go in [Sunday] and correct the mistakes and get ready for Tulsa.”
— Marc Narducci (@sjnard) November 18, 2017
When UCF scored on its second possession of the second half, a 22-yard strike from sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton to one of the nation’s best receivers, Tre’Quan Smith, the lead swelled to 38-13. On the next series, after Nutile was intercepted for the third time, the Knights could begin thinking about Friday’s game with their in-state rival.
This game demonstrated why second-year UCF coach Scott Frost is being mentioned for big-time coach jobs. He inherited a 0-12 team and went 6-7 with a bowl bid in his first season and now the Knights are primed to play in a New Year’s Day bowl, although beating South Florida won’t be easy.
The Owls were competitive for more than a quarter. They took a 10-7 lead when Nutile, who bought plenty of time while scrambling, found Keith Kirkwood in the back of the end zone for an 8-yard scoring pass with 13:37 left in the first half.
Then UCF turned on the jets, scoring 24 unanswered points.
Milton, who didn’t play in the fourth quarter, completed 16 of 23 passes for 208 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. He also rushed for 23 yards and a score. Milton played a solid game in last year’s 26-25 home loss to Temple, but he looked like a world-beater on Saturday.
“He had great pocket presence,” Temple defensive end Sharif Finch said. “He was escaping the pocket and it was hard to get to the guy. He has definitely improved this year.”
And his team has followed, which is why UCF remains the favorite to replace Temple as AAC champion.