HOUSTON — As the confetti dropped from the sky, and the Houston students rushed the field at TDECU Stadium Saturday afternoon, the Owls walked across the green turf of John O’Quinn Field to the west entrance.
Behind them, Houston celebrated a 24-13 win in the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural conference championship game.
“This isn’t deflating,” coach Matt Rhule said. “This is one of the most positive days in Temple Football history.”
After the Owls’ defense forced its third three-and-out from the Cougars’ offense in the second half of Saturday’s game, Temple’s offense got the ball back with just more than five minutes remaining.
The Owls (10-3, 7-2 The American) drove inside the Cougars’ 30-yard line but did not total any points after Walker fumbled the snap and rushed two yards short of the first down marker on fourth down.
The Cougars took possession with 1:58 left in the game, and led by first downs from junior quarterback Greg Ward, Jr. and junior cornerback Brandon Wilson, Houston ran the clock out to claim a 24-13 win for The American’s inaugural conference title.
“We had a chance to make it a one-score game,” Rhule said. “We had a couple plays get away from us.”
With the loss, Temple is not eligible for a “New Year’s Six” bowl game. The Owls will find out which bowl game they play in tomorrow.
“We are going to play in a bowl game,” Rhule said. “These kids haven’t been to a bowl game yet. We jumped step C and went from B to D and I’m proud of them.”
The Cougars were led by all-conference second team junior quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who totaled 148 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Ward also completed 11-of-21 pass attempts for 88 yards passing.
“He was the difference tonight,” Rhule said. “We played really good defense at times, but he was just a difference maker, which he has been all year.”
Despite out gaining the Cougars 385-339 and totaling three more first downs, the Owls’ offensive production was stifled by two early turnovers.
On the Owls’ fourth play from scrimmage, junior quarterback P.J. Walker threw an interception, giving the Cougars the ball at the Owls’ 36-yard line. Ward and the Cougars took a 7-0 lead when sophomore running back Javin Webb scored from one-yard out 11 plays later.
Temple drove 52 yards on its next possession, which was stalled when redshirt-senior wide receiver Robby Anderson fumbled the ball at the Houston 11-yard line.
“You are going to fumble,” Rhule said. “Bad things are going to happen. We had two turnovers early in the game. We never took the ball away from them, credit to them. They won the turnover margin.”
Heading into halftime, Temple trailed 17-3. Houston extended its lead to 24-3 when Ward ran 10 yards for a touchdown with 6:40 left in the third quarter.
The Owls responded with a 10-play, 77-yard drive capped by a 13-yard touchdown pass from Walker to Anderson with 2:26 left in the third quarter. After Anderson’s touchdown made the score 24-10, Temple’s defense forced a three-and-out from the Cougars on the next drive.
Houston had a 0-for-4 third down conversion rate in the second half after going 5-of-10 in the first half.
“We took a deep breath and everybody started to relax,” senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich said. “You can get caught up in the moment, it’s a championship game. We locked it all up. They had a bunch of big plays in the first half, and we started playing Temple defense in the second [half]. But it wasn’t enough.”
Temple started its next drive at midfield, and junior running back Jahad Thomas, who had 19 carries for 69 yards, converted a fourth-and-one from the Cougars’ 31-yard line after Walker completed a pass to the him in the flat.
Three plays later, sophomore kicker Austin Jones connected on a 39-yard field goal with 11:29 remaining in the game, making the score 24-13, where it would remain for the rest of the game.
With 7:18 remaining in the fourth quarter, Temple faced its second fourth-and-one of the second half. Walker’s pass was incomplete to sophomore wide receiver Adonis Jennings, and the Cougars took over on their own 38-yard line. Temple was 1-of-4 on fourth down attempts Saturday.
Michael Guise can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Michael_Guise