By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — At halftime of last Saturday’s Fordham-Temple college football clash at Lincoln Financial Field, someone asked when the Rams had last one a game against a Bowl Championship Subdivision opponent.
“Probably at the Cotton Bowl,” a voice echoed through the press box, harkening back to another era of Fordham football, a period remembered for Vince Lombardi, the Seven Blocks of Granite and home games at Yankee Stadium.
Actually, Fordham’s appearance in the 1940 Cotton Bowl resulted in a 13-12 loss to Texas A&M — no, “Johnny Football” Manzell didn’t put the Aggies on the national football map — but the Rams followed that up with a 2-0 shutout 365 days later against Missouri in the 1941 Sugar Bowl.
It was the final game as Fordham coach for Jim Crowley, the former Notre Dame star who was immortalized as one of Grantland Rice’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalpse.
The college game was never the same in the Bronx as Fordham suffered a gradual erosion of success.
Like many other Catholic schools of that era, Fordham decided to disband its football team after the 1954 season, leaving the program in mothballs for a decade.
Indeed, it’s been awhile since Fordham was on the top of the New York City football world, but the Rams continued with their renaissance when wide receiver Sam Ajala grabbed a Michael Nebrich pass intended for teammate Brian Wetzel in the end zone with four seconds remaining tied the game and Michael Marando’s extra point provide the exclamation for a 30-29 win over the Owls.
For a team from a city that appreciates a good drama, whether it is on, or off-Broadway, the Rams have been providing their share of entertainment in the first three weeks of the season.
Three wins in a row are something the Rams hadn’t accomplished since they won six in a row against basically a Division III schedule in 1988.
A week earlier, second-year coach Joe Moorhead called a 27-24 home upset of No. 5-ranked Villanova — which included forcing five turnovers to thwart one of the most dangerous offenses in the Football Championship Subdivision — the most significant win in the modern history of the program.
But the win over Temple was even bigger, vaulting the Rams into 21st in the national polls — the first ranking for Fordham since 2008.
Things didn’t need to be so dramatic. Fordham could have been ahead by three touchdowns in the first half, but for a poor call after moving to a first-and-goal on its first drive of the game and a bad decision to fake a punt in the second quarter.
Temple stopped the fake punt short of a first down and turned it into its only score — a touchdown — of the first half.
A key to Fordham’s success was the rushing prowess of All-American Carlton Koonce, who pounded out 168 yards and scored once on a workmanlike 27 carries.
Fordham still led 13-7 at the break and held its advantage until Temple’s third quarterback of the day, Connor Reilly, came off the bench despite suffering a knee injury last week and led the Owls to 22 second-half points.
Reily’s seven-yard scoring strike to Chris Coyer and starting QB Clinton Granger’s two-point run with 4:34 remaining gave Temple a 29-23 lead. But the Owls left four seconds too many on the clock.
Nebrich (23-of-36 passing for a career-high 320 yards and two TDs) led the Rams on a 13-play, 71-yard march, converting a pair of fourth-down plays before finding Ajala (seven catches, 134 yards) on the third-and-two situation.
Ajala — lining up wide to the right on the final offensive chance for Fordham — was forced out of bounds on the play, but reestablished position to become an eligible receiver again.
Temple screamed for a video booth review to argue that Ajala was not eligible and made for some anxious moments for the Rams, but the replay confirmed the ruling on the field.
The win helped crack the FCS record — set at 12 in 2000 — for wins against FBS teams in a single season with 13, just three weeks into the season. It was the sixth win for FCS schools against a BCS opponent.
It was the first-ever win by a Patriot League team over a BCS club and was the first FBS victory for the conference since Colgate defeated Buffalo in 2003 on the way to its undefeated run before losing to Delaware in the national championship game.
Now four years into offering scholarships for football, the Rams are starting to show the results of a bold institutional strategy.
Fordham’s decision that football could only survive and thrive with grants-in-aid has had a revolutionary impact on the Rams’ membership in the Patriot League — forcing the conservative forces at schools like Lehigh, Lafayatte, Colgate, Holy Cross and Bucknell to begin offering scholarships this season.
Despite its trailblazing move, Fordham is ineligible for the Patriot League title again this season and must receive an at-large berth to make the NCAA Division I Football playoffs.
But victories over Colonial Athletic Association opponents Rhode Island and Villanova at home and the road win against Temple give the Rams some collateral before they start their PL schedule in October.
Fordham continues what seems to be some magic in the making with its 11th annual Liberty Cup contest at Jack Coffey Stadium against Columbia on Saturday at 1 p.m.
The Rams conclude non-league play on Sept. 28 at Saint Francis before beginning PL competition the following weekend at home against Lehigh.