Akeem Ayers already knew what it was like to slip into the end zone on an interception return.
Rallying from a two-touchdown deficit in a bowl game, though, was something new.
The sophomore linebacker returned an interception 2 yards for a score in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s EagleBank Bowl, lifting UCLA to a 30-21 victory over Temple before 23,072 at RFK Stadium.
“This was a big win for us, especially being down in the first half and coming back,” said Ayers, who also had nine tackles to secure the bowl’s MVP honor. “I’m not going to forget [that].”
Redshirt freshman Kevin Prince completed 16 of 31 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns as UCLA (7-6) collected its first postseason victory since the 2005 Sun Bowl and secured a rewarding conclusion to coach Rick Neuheisel’s second season in Westwood.
Temple lost in its first bowl appearance since 1979 and finished 9-4 after playing the second half without star tailback Bernard Pierce, who was shelved when he reaggravated a shoulder injury. His absence hampered the Owls, whose offense sputtered without a brawny rusher who could easily handle RFK’s slippery, rock-hard sod.
The Bruins fared only a bit better on offense, instead relying on their defense and special teams to complete a rally from a 21-7 hole. Ayers capped the comeback when he anticipated Temple quarterback Vaughn Charlton’s screen to Joe Jones, stepped in front of the pass and took a step into the end zone for his second touchdown of the year.
“He came out of nowhere,” said Charlton, who was making his first start since Oct. 31.
UCLA made the two-point conversion, then stuffed the Owls on three downs on the ensuing possession. Temple’s snap soared over the punter and out of the end zone for a safety, bumping the Bruins’ edge to 30-21.
Temple never regained possession and instead was stuck watching UCLA celebrate a victory three time zones from home.
“The pendulum was sitting right in the middle,” Neuheisel said. “We were 6-6, and this was going to determine what kind of season we had in the eyes of a lot of people who don’t pay as close attention as maybe we do. Now we’re a winning team in 2009, and the expectations are going to take a notch forward.”
It made for a bittersweet moment for the Owls, whose fans packed the rickety lower bowl and savored the early charge toward matching the 1979 team as the only other 10-win outfit in school history. Charlton was sharp throughout the first half, completing 12 of 16 passes for 153 yards and a touchdown.
But that was when he had the services of Pierce, who had 53 yards and a score before leaving. With Pierce gone and Matt Brown (83 yards) struggling with the slick conditions, Temple managed just 41 yards in the second half. Charlton was 1-for-7 for 6 yards in the final two quarters.
“When [Pierce] and Matt are in the offense, not only is the running game working inside and outside, but the play action is working,” Temple coach Al Golden said.
It was a disappointing conclusion to a breakout season in North Philadelphia, where Temple was long a football doormat. The Owls enjoyed their first winning season since 1990 - and signaled that a program that was 0-11 just four years ago is nothing like what it once was.
“It’s definitely come a long way,” said senior safety Dominique Harris, a D.C. native. “We went through a lot together. We went through a one-win season, four [wins] and then we just built up. It built up. To end it the way we did this season, we wish we could have won this game. At the end of the day, we did have a successful season, and it came from a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears.”
So, too, did the Bruins. As a result of the win, their long flight back to Los Angeles will be a spirited one. And if they have their way, it will be the first of many.
“I told the team in the locker room this is a start,” Neuheisel said. “We want to start collecting these wonderful trophies and memories that college football provides, and we look forward to that.”