Sure, Temple was playing its first bowl game in 30 years, but what about those Bruins from UCLA? They were playing in the school's first cold-weather, East Coast bowl on a field so icy it caused the coaches to change the game plan at halftime.
Wearing those soft blue and gold hues that don't look right in subfreezing weather, UCLA rallied from a two-touchdown, first-half deficit Tuesday to spoil the new bowl kids' day, beating Temple 30-21 in the EagleBank Bowl.
“I know they were saying the West Coast Cali boys were going to be soft and used to surfing and things like that,” linebacker Reggie Carter said. “I'm not going to lie; it was cold. But football is football, the field is still 100 yards long and we still played. They ran the ball; we stuffed it. We got the victory, so hopefully they can never say we're soft. We were down 21-7, and you never seen us quit.”
Akeem Ayers returned an interception 2 yards for a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter and UCLA's defense allowed Temple to complete only one pass in the second half. The Bruins (7-6), completing their second season under coach Rick Neuheisel, finished with a winning record for the first time since 2006.
“It's a start,” Neuheisel said. “The pendulum was sitting right in the middle; we were 6-6. This was going to determine what kind of season we had in the eyes of a lot of people. Now we're a winning team in 2009, so the expectation is they're going to take a notch forward. ... We want to start collecting these wonderful trophies and memories that college football provides.”
UCLA's mini-slump of losing seasons paled next to the decades of futility endured by the Owls (9-4), whose only previous bowl appearances in school history were the inaugural Sugar Bowl in 1935 and the Garden State Bowl in 1979. But Temple coach Al Golden has engineered a four-year turnaround after inheriting a program that went 0-11 in 2005, exciting a fan base led by No. 1 alum, comedian Bill Cosby.
“It's definitely come a long way,” senior safety Dominique Harris said. “We've been through a lot together. We've been through a one-win season, four-win, then it just built up. To end it the way we did, we wish we could have won this game, but at the end of the day we did have a successful season.”
The temperature was 32 at kickoff with the wind chill was 19. Still, both teams said they were less affected by the cold and more by a field Neuheisel described as “an ice rink.” One of UCLA's halftime adjustments was to run plays that required little or no change of direction.
“The icy field affected everything we did,” said fullback Chane Moline, who benefited with a straight-ahead running style that produced 69 yards on 15 carries.
The biggest difference was a UCLA defense that limited Vaughn Charlton to 1-for-7 passing for 6 yards with two interceptions in the second half. Charlton's strong practices gave him the starting nod over Chester Stewart, who had started Temple's last four regular-season games, and the choice seemed like the right one when Charlton went 12 for 16 for 153 yards in the first half.
Temple also played much of the game without Bernard Pierce, who left after re-injuring his shoulder. Pierce ran for 1,308 yards and 15 touchdowns in the regular season, but he had only 12 carries for 53 yards and a touchdown on Tuesday--all in the first half.
The ice played a factor in the interception that gave UCLA the lead when the Bruins were trailing 21-20. Ayers slipped at the beginning of the play, but he recovered and found himself in the perfect spot to step in front of Charlton's screen pass and stroll into the end zone with 6:01 remaining.
“I didn't see him,” Charlton said. “The kid came out of nowhere.”
It was Ayers who also had one of the most amazing interceptions of the college football season in October, when he leaped to snag a pass in the back of the end zone in a loss to Oregon. Asked which play he liked better, he said “Both of ‘em” before Neuheisel interrupted.
“This one,” the coach said, “because we won the game.”
The Bruins got a 2-point conversion, then added two more when Temple snapped the ball over its punter's head and out of the own end zone for a safety with 4:29 to play.
Kevin Prince completed 16 of 31 passes for 221 yards with two touchdowns and one interception for the Bruins. He had a 46-yard TD throw to Nelson Rosario, who made a juggling catch down the left sideline in the first quarter, a play set up by Terrence Austin's 47-yard punt return.
In the second half, Austin caught a fourth-and-1 pass in the flat and took it 32 yards up the right sideline for a score. Temple tried to answer, but Matt Brown was stopped on fourth-and-1 at the UCLA 9, and Bruins sophomore Rahim Moore's 10th interception of the season ended another Owls drive. Moore leads major college football in interceptions.
The game drew 23,072 to RFK Stadium, a decline of more than 5,000 from last year's inaugural game. Organizers had to dig deep for participants because the original matchup _ Army vs. an Atlantic Coast Conference team--didn't pan out because Army finished with a losing record and the ACC lacked enough bowl-eligible schools.
But UCLA and Temple weren't complaining--not even in the cold.
“Some of our best players are young players,” Golden said. “We're excited about the direction we're going. ...To go toe-to-toe and mix it up with that kind of team, we haven't been able to do that.”