HOUSTON -- Tom Herman came to Houston after helping Ohio State to a national championship last season with designs on returning the Cougars to national prominence.
Less than a year later the coach has done exactly that, leading Houston (No. 19 CFP, No. 17 AP) to a high-profile bowl for the first time in more than 20 years with a 24-13 win over Temple (No. 22 CFP, No. 20 AP) in the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship game on Saturday.
Greg Ward Jr. ran for 148 yards and two touchdowns to secure Houston's spot as the Group of 5 representative and earn the Cougars a trip to either the Peach Bowl or Fiesta Bowl.
"Just an overwhelming sense of pride in our guys and our team," said Herman, who came to Houston after working as the offensive coordinator for the Buckeyes. "None of this would be possible without the leaders in that locker room buying in from day one and dragging the rest of the team with them."
Ward raved about Herman and his staff.
"This program has gone through a lot before coach Herman came in," he said. "When coach Herman first came in we knew he had a plan ... we are just very happy and fortunate that we have those guys with us."
Houston (12-1) jumped to a 17-0 lead with the help of two turnovers by Temple, one capped by a 47-yard touchdown run by Ward.
Temple (10-3) had a chance to get within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, but Jeremy Winchester knocked down a pass in the end zone and the Owls settled for a field goal that made it 24-13.
They had two more chances to cut the deficit after that, but were stopped on fourth down both times.
"This isn't deflating," Temple coach Matt Rhule said. "This is one of the most positive days in Temple football history. I wish we would have won, but we got down, and our kids fought back. Disappointed, yes, but we are going to play in a bowl game."
Fans rushed the field after the game, making a sea of red surrounding the stage they brought out onto the field to present the championship trophy.
Herman helped the Cougars to their second 12-win season and first since they went 13-1 in 2011 under former coach Kevin Sumlin and quarterback Case Keenum.
He hopes it raises Houston's status among the elite schools in Texas.
"If you want to go somewhere and win a whole bunch of games and win trophies and get rings ... the University of Houston is certainly a place to do that," Herman said.
Ward's day gave him 1,041 yards rushing this season, making him the first quarterback in school history to rush for 1,000 yards. It was his fourth 100-yard rushing game and the sixth time he's run for two scores.
He was 11 of 21 for 88 yards passing.
"He's a playmaker," Herman said. "He's still got some polishing to do in terms of his quarterback play. When the ball is in his hands you know usually good things are going to happen."
Houston cornerback William Jackson set a school-record by breaking up seven passes. That gives him 20 this season, which is also a record for the Cougars.
Ward's second touchdown came on a 10-yard run that made it 24-3 with less than seven minutes left in the third quarter. He was shaken up on the play after being drilled to the turf as he scored. Ward walked off after a couple of minutes and was attended to by medical staff on the sideline, but didn't miss a play.
That score was set up by another run by Ward when he burst up the middle on a 25-yard scramble and was stopped by a shoestring tackle by Delvon Randall three plays earlier.
Ward evaded several defenders at the line and darted to the outside before dashing 47 yards for a touchdown that made it 17-0 with about 5 1/2 minutes left in the first half. The scramble was Houston's longest rushing touchdown of the season.