HOUSTON -- Four years ago, Houston had a chance to claim a conference title and find big bowl glory only to see the opportunity slip away.
On Saturday at TDECU Stadium, the Cougars capitalized on their big opportunity, rolling to a 24-13 win against Temple to claim their first American Athletic Conference championship. Here's a look at the highlights:
What the win means for Houston: The No. 19 Cougars (12-1) claim the AAC championship and virtually assure themselves a berth in a New Year's Six bowl, which goes to the highest-ranked Group of 5 conference champion (the Cougars were the highest-ranked Group of 5 team coming into the weekend). It's a huge step forward for this program, which continues to make waves under first-year coach Tom Herman. It's Houston's first conference championship since 2006 when the Cougars were in Conference USA. It's a bit of redemption for the program and the small handful of seniors who were around the last time the Cougars were in this position in 2011. A win would have earned them a BCS bowl berth, but they lost to Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA championship game on Dec. 3, 2011. It's their 11th conference championship in school history. The Cougars are probably headed to the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl or the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
What the loss means for Temple: It's tough to get to this point and come away empty-handed -- the Owls (10-3) were seeking the first FBS conference championship in school history -- but it doesn't take away from an impressive third season for coach Matt Rhule. The Owls were 2-10 in 2013, his first season as head coach, and lost to Fordham. Now they finished the regular season with 10 wins and were on the doorstep of a New Year's Six bowl. The program's trajectory is upward and should continue that way as long as he's in charge. Where they'll go bowling will be determined Sunday, but some projections have them going to the Miami Beach Bowl.
How the game was won: Two early turnovers were damaging for Temple, and Houston turned one of them into points, scoring on its first drive of the game after a Tyus Bowser interception. The Cougars used a strong run game led by quarterback Greg Ward Jr., averaged 5.8 yards per rush as a team and finished with 233 yards, impressive considering they were without starting running back Kenneth Farrow (high ankle sprain). Defensively, the Cougars pressured Temple quarterback P.J. Walker early and often and kept the Owls out of the end zone until the third quarter -- and at that point Houston had a 21-point lead. Temple finished with more total yards (385) but was 5-of-14 on third downs and 1-of-4 on fourth downs. Aside from Walker, receiver Robby Anderson (12 catches, 150 yards) was the only consistent weapon for the Owls. The Cougars didn’t turn the ball over at all.
Player of the game: Ward changed the game with his feet, rushing for a game-high 148 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. He didn’t throw a ton -- he didn’t have to -- but took care of the ball, throwing for 88 yards and not throwing an interception.
Unsung hero: William Jackson III has been Houston’s best cornerback all season, and he had a stellar performance Saturday. The senior, who is considered to be an attractive prospect for the 2016 NFL draft, had seven pass breakups -- a school record -- and consistently did a good job in coverage. He also had five tackles and one tackle for loss. For the season, he has 20 pass breakups.