Quarterbacks Alex McGough (left) and Frank Nutile (right) lead a pair of high-scoring teams into the Gasparilla Bowl.
Time: 8 p.m.
Two teams that showed the capability of putting points on the scoreboard as they closed out the regular season will clash Thursday night in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Temple won three of its last four games to reach bowl eligibility, with the lone loss in that span a 45-19 setback to unbeaten UCF. The Owls scored a combined 112 points in posting wins over Navy, at Cincinnati and at Tulsa.
Florida International scored 104 points in its last two games in routing Western Kentucky 41-17 and Massachusetts 63-45 to tie a program record for wins in a season.
The Owls (6-6) are making their third consecutive appearance in the postseason — a program first. The Panthers (8-4) are playing in their first bowl since 2011, when they lost to Marshall 20-10 in what was then the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl — also played in the same site as this matchup, Tropicana Field.
Both coaches are in their first year at their respective posts.
“The kids just did a great job this year,” FIU’s Butch Davis said. “We have 19 seniors who just did an unbelievable job — the leadership, the way in which they played. I think it’s a football team that got better every single week.
“We started off with a tough game the first game of the season (a 61-17 loss at UCF) and they never let anything damage their courage and the consistency and the way in which they worked and approached every game.”
Said Temple’s Geoff Collins: “The big thing is we wanted to get that last win for the seniors and make sure they’ll be bowl eligible and to be the all-time winningest class in school history.”
This will be the first meeting between the two programs, but Davis was 6-0 against the Owls in his time at Miami. This, however, is a much different Temple team from the one that struggled during its Big East years.
“Their running backs are really, really good,” Davis said. “Defensively, the number of pressures and blitzes and tackles for loss and sacks, I mean they are really, really good at giving you negatives and bad plays. And they’re one of the best teams that we have played as far as punt return and kickoff return.
“They’ve actually scored touchdowns in both of those aspects. This is not one of those games — like I told the team — that if we just control just one phase then we’ll have a chance to win. We’ve got to play good in all three phases.”
Wide receiver Isaiah Wright has a 72-yard punt return and a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown as well as leading the Owls with 40 catches for 581 yards. Running backs David Hood and Ryquell Armstead have combined to rush for 1,115 yards and eight touchdowns.
Temple’s defense features sack masters at end with Jacob Martin (11 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks) and Sharif Finch (14.5/7.5).
The key to the late-season run, however, was a change at quarterback. Junior Frank Nutile started the last five games and, after a loss to Army in his first start, threw four touchdown passes against Navy to get the Owls rolling. He has completed 60.5 percent of his attempts for 1,346 yards and 11 touchdowns — 10 in the last four games.
Davis, who also had head coaching stints at North Carolina and the Cleveland Browns in addition to his time at Miami, has a veteran at quarterback in senior Alex McGough, whom he calls “one of the best quarterbacks that I’ve been around at all levels of coaching.”
McGough has completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 2,791 yards and 17 touchdowns against only eight interceptions. With a big finish, he could become FIU’s first 3,000-yard passer for a season.
“Obviously, they’re very talented,” Collins said of the Panthers. “They’re very well-coached. Whenever you play a team from South Florida they obviously have speed. They’re very competitive. They have a dynamic offense and really good players on defense.”
McGough, however, won’t have his favorite target, senior wide receiver Thomas Owens. Owens (59 catches, 887 yards in nine games) sustained a season-ending knee injury late in the season. Another senior, Julian Williams, who also missed time to injury, will be available, however.
“We’re as healthy as we can be at the end of 12 games,” Davis said.