HOUSTON — Tom Herman knows there is more to this fairy tale of a season for the Houston Cougars.
The first-year coach and his 17th-ranked Cougars in are hosting the inaugural American Athletic Conference Championship game against No. 20 Temple on Saturday. Houston is looking for its second 12-win season in school history, four years after the Cougars went 13-1.
The winner of Saturday’s game will be the Group of Five representative and go to either the Peach or Fiesta Bowl.
“I am excited to have earned the right to host the American Athletic Conference Championship game,” Herman said. “We feel like that is a tremendous advantage for us, considering the way that we have been packing our stadium the last two home games. I would expect this one to be about as good as it gets. Not only is there a conference championship on the line, but a New Year’s Day bowl bid as well.”
After losing its first game of the year against Connecticut two weeks ago, Houston rebounded against Navy. Led by quarterback Greg Ward, Jr., who missed most of the UConn game and the second half against Memphis with an ankle injury, the Cougars offense got off to a fast start and limited Navy’s triple option to 147 rushing yards.
It’s a pretty good year for Temple, too. The Owls are looking for their first 11-win season and first bowl game since 2011 Temple, led by quarterback P.J. Walker and running back Jahad Thomas on offense and linebacker Tyler Matakevich on defense, will challenge the Cougars.
“You just have to be sharp,” Houston cornerback Adrian McDonald said of the Temple offense. “Limit the explosives. They have some good, big-time receivers on the outside with a lot of speed. Last year they had us on a couple of screen plays. We can’t let that happen this year.”
Herman has one message for his team.
“Finish,” Herman said. “Our goal wasn’t to be 11-1, our goal wasn’t to be 12-0, our goal wasn’t to be the West Division Champions, our goal was to win the conference, and we are that close.”
Other things to watch for on Saturday:
TEMPLE OFFENSE: RB Jahad Thomas is second in the American with 1,188 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. Walker has thrown for 2,450 yards and 18 touchdowns on 57 percent passing. Receiver Robby Anderson is Walker’s favorite target, with 52 receptions for 723 yards and six touchdowns this season. Overall, Temple has averaged over 32 points a game, with a balanced rushing and throwing attack combining for nearly 368 yards a contest.
HOUSTON’S RB QUESTION: Starting running back Kenneth Farrow missed the Navy game with a high ankle sprain. Brandon Wilson, who typically starts at cornerback, made his first career start against Navy, rushing for over 100 yards and two scores. Herman said Wilson would likely play both offense and defense against Temple.
THOSE DEFENSES: Temple’s Matakevich is a finalist for the Bednarik Award and the Nagurski Trophy for good reason as the senior has 118 tackles, including 14 for a loss and 4 1-2 sacks, and is second in the American with five interceptions. Defensive end Nate Smith has eight sacks to lead the Owls’ stingy defense. The Cougars are second to the Owls in run defense and Elandon Roberts leads Houston’s defense with 127 tackles, including 84 solo (second nationally). Houston ranks fifth nationally with 28 takeaways and has scored five times on defense this season.
COACHING BUZZ: Tom Herman was Ohio State’s offensive coordinator last season as the Buckeyes won the national title and he was frequently mentioned as coaching vacancies opened around the country this year. Houston moved this week to keep their first-year coach, agreed to a deal that locks him up through the 2020 season and raises his annual compensation to $2.8 million. Temple coach Matt Rhule, who has a career record of 18-18 as the Owls coach but is 10-2 this season, is also garnering attention. Asked about rumors being a distraction, Rhule said: “Only if people keep asking about it. Our team and I, we consider ourselves a family. So anything that happens they know about, and we talk about. The program’s not about me, it’s never about me.”