WRITTEN BY TOM HANSLIN @tomhanslin
In Temple’s first conference championship game appearance in program history, the Owls struggled mightily to live up to the competition, as the Houston Cougars defeated Temple, 24-13 to claim the first-ever American Athletic Conference Championship Game.
Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. carved up the Owls’ nationally-ranked defense, tallying 148 yards rushing with two touchdowns. Temple conceded a total of 339 yards, including 16 first downs.
The Owls’ blunders began in the game’s opening drive, as quarterback P.J. Walker threw an interception to Cougars’ Tyus Bowser in Owls’ territory. On the ensuing possession, Houston drew first blood, scoring on a 1-yard rush by Javin Webb. It was a 10-play drive for 36 yards to make the score 7-0.
Three minutes later, Temple was back on offense, and after driving 63 yards to the Cougars’ own 9, receiver Robby Anderson was stripped of the football, which was later recovered by Houston for the Owls’ second turnover.
Houston tacked on three more points in the second quarter off of a 24-yard field goal made by Ty Cummings, increasing the lead to 10-0 with 13:28 left in the first half. After three consecutive punts, the Cougars’ offense generated seven more points, as Ward Jr. broke out for a 47-yard touchdown run, making it 17-0 Houston with five minutes to go.
Prior to halftime, Temple drove 51 yards downfield and settled with a 40-yard field goal made by Austin Jones, cutting the deficit to 17-3 after 30 minutes.
After Houston was forced to punt on the third quarter’s opening drive, Temple once again generated a 51-yard drive to the Cougars’ 29, but on a fourth down and four to go, the Owls kept the offense on the field and failed to convert for a turnover on downs.
Temple’s failure to convert led to more mistakes on the defensive end, as Houston marched downfield on seven plays for 71 yards, resulting in a 10-yard touchdown rush from Ward Jr., making the score 24-3.
Immediately after, the Owls responded with the ball, and spent four minutes marching down 75 yards, as Walker found Anderson in the right corner of the endzone, trimming the lead to 24-10 in favor of Houston after three quarters.
Temple’s defensive pressure forced another Cougars’ punt, and on the ensuing drive, Jones drilled his second field goal of the game, a 39-yarder with less than 12 minutes remaining in regulation.
The score would not change from there on out, as Temple failed to convert on fourth down twice in the closing minutes.
Houston’s victory secured their bid to play in a New Year’s Six bowl game, placed as the highest-ranked team outside of the Power Five conferences. It was the Cougars’ 11th conference championship title, and first since 2006 as members of the Conference-USA.
Walker finished the game with 26 completions, 12 of which were targeted to Anderson, who tallied 150 yards receiving, his season-high. Running back Jahad Thomas earned only 69 yards on the ground on 19 carries, the seventh time this year in which Thomas was limited to less than 70 yards rushing. It was also only the second game in which Thomas did not record a touchdown.
Temple’s regular season concluded with a record of 10-3, the second time in program history in which the Owls earned double-digit wins. On Jones’ second field goal, Temple also eclipsed 400 points on the year, a new program high. Jones also surpassed Brandon McManus for most points by an Owls’ kicker in a season with 100.
The Owls will learn of their bowl game destination tomorrow afternoon from the College Football Playoff Selection Committee.