Junior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. has been brilliant in leading Houston to an 11-1 record and into Saturday's American Athletic Conference title tilt with Temple, accounting for better than 3,300 yards and 33 TDs so far this season.
In his first season at Houston, Tom Herman was AAC's coach of the year.
AN ELITE 8
Best games to show the country what the American Athletic Conference has been all about in 2015:
Memphis 37, No. 13 Ole Miss 24 The Tigers, behind QB Paxton Lynch, picked apart a Rebels squad that had beaten mighty Alabama on the road a couple weeks earlier. The win marked the 13th in a row for Memphis, dating back to 2014, the host team dominating after falling behind 14-0 early.
No. 9 Notre Dame 24, No. 21 Temple 20 The Philly-based Owls sent shockwaves throughout the commonwealth when they handled Penn State in their opener, but they gained the nation’s respect by standing toe-to-toe with the Irish in this one, and actually having a chance to win it in the final minutes.
Navy 45, No. 13 Memphis 20 The Midshipmen embarrassed Lynch and Co. on their own turf, unleashing a 374-yard ground attack to knock the Tigers from their unbeaten perch. The win shot previously unranked Navy into the Top 25 and gave the Middies “top billing” in the conference at the time.
No. 24 Houston 35, No. 21 Memphis 34 Somehow, in some way, the host Cougars rallied from a 20-point deficit with star QB Greg Ward Jr. sidelined with an injury. Backup Kyle Postma relieved him right before intermission and directed every Cougars scoring drive, throwing for 236 yards and a score and running for 49 and a score.
South Florida 44, No. 22 Temple This was a wake-up call in more ways than one. The Owls had gotten a little lax and needed this kinda shock therapy to reawaken. The Bulls, meanwhile, gave warning to all in the future: watch out. They are now a handful with super sophs Marlon Mack and Quinton Flowers.
Temple 31, No. 21 Memphis 12 The Owls responded immediately to that beating by giving their best all-around performance of the season – at the expense of the suddenly slumping Tigers, who lost for the third straight week. Temple completely shut down Lynch and the vaunted Memphis offense, something neither Navy nor Houston did.
Connecticut 20, No. 19 Houston 17 The AAC’s last hope for an unbeaten season bit the dust as Postma lost the battle of the backup QBs to the Huskies’ Tim Boyle, although, really, it was the UConn ground game and defense that did in the Cougars. The Huskies held Houston more than 200 yards and 25 points under its season averages.
Houston 52, No. 15 Navy 31 As fellow AAC title-game entrant Temple had the week before, Houston responded immediately to that upsetting loss by pummeling the conference team that had most gained the nation’s attention. Ward was brilliant in his return, throwing for 308 yards and three scores and running for 83 and a score.
Best Defensive Player Tyler Matakevich | Temple LB
It was annoying at first.
While Memphis and Temple were turning heads on the field, the nation’s college football conscience seemed to be focused on Houston when it grudgingly afforded a few moments to pay any mind to the American Athletic Conference. Yeah, the Cougars had the hot-commodity coach now at the helm, they had an electric talent at quarterback, and they were winning, too.
But they didn’t seem to be playing anyone legit, or anyone legit who happened to be having an average season, never mind a good one. Not for nothing, but Louisville – Houston’s most-respected victim the first two months of the season – wasn’t exactly “vintage” this season, especially early when the Cougars got the Cardinals in the midst of a 0-3 start.
Yet, whenever words were uttered about the AAC, they generally centered on Tom Herman and what magic the former Ohio State assistant was performing in his first season down in Houston. Throughout September and well into October it was “Herman, Herman, Herman … and, oh, yeah, his team.”
Oddly, it wasn’t until the Week 7 rankings came out that Herman’s Cougars cracked the Top 25, checking in at No. 24, but they were the first AAC team to do so, and somehow they went from previously getting no votes to leapfrogging Memphis and Temple, two conference teams that had been getting them for weeks, in the process.
It just seemed … off. As if Houston were benefitting from the rep Herman earned at Ohio State and his instrumental role with the 2014 national champion Buckeyes. The Cougars were unbeaten, sure. But so was Memphis. So was Temple … and both had played better schedules.
Then, poof, it all changed.
Memphis manhandled then-No. 13 Ole Miss the following Saturday, and suddenly it was the AAC standard-bearer. Two weeks later Temple actually lost to a then-No. 6 Notre Dame, but earned so much respect in the process that it, too, started to get more acclaim than Houston.
When Navy handed Memphis its first loss the first week of last month, and did so in dominating fashion, then it was the conference’s darling. Not even Houston rallying a week after to slip past the Tigers, 35-34, seemed to matter.
For some reason, it then had become … Herman, who? Uhh, Houston … umm, yeah, it’s OK.
Now, though, as we continue through Championship Week, the dust has settled. Despite suffering its first loss two weeks ago, as Herman misjudged sitting an injured Greg Ward Jr., thinking the Cougars could slip by Connecticut without its Heisman-level talent behind center, Houston has returned to the top of the AAC heap.
Only now it’s deserved. Truly deserved, and if the AAC West champion Cougars (11-1, 7-1 conference) somehow manage to beat AAC East winner Temple (10-2, 7-1) on Saturday, they will have proven themselves worthy of any accolade or New Year’s bowl invite they receive.
Think about it. Should they top the Owls, that would give the Cougars wins against the nation’s Nos. 21 (Memphis), 15 (Navy) and 22 (Temple) teams in the past four weeks, not to mention two of the nation’s top offensive forces in Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch and Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds and arguably the best defensive player in the country in Temple linebacker Tyler Matakevich. That’s power-5, college-football-playoff contender stuff right there. Every bit as much as what any Big Ten or SEC or Pac-12 squad has done this season.
Ward is a truly wondrous athlete, able to nimbly pick apart a defense with his arm, legs or smarts. When you think dual-threat QBs, he fits the profile to a “T” and then some with 893 yards and 14 TDs rushing, but it’s his accurate aerials that set him apart. The junior ranks among the nation’s best in passer rating (14th at 158.6) and he’s thrown for 2,502 yards and 16 TDs while completing 69.2 of his attempts.
He is not alone in the “dangerous” category. Running back Kenneth Farrow (949 yards, 12 TDs rushing) is a bull in a china shop … with speed, wide receiver Demarcus Ayers (89 receptions, 1,140 yards) is as good as it gets, and, keeping it real, LB Elandon Roberts (127 tackles, 6 sacks) is a defender in Matakevich’s class.
But you can’t ignore Herman. Yeah, as annoying as it was earlier in the year, all the attention being paid to him and how he was affecting the Houston program, the reality is his impact has been huge. These are not new players for the Cougars. These are guys Herman inherited from Tony Levine, who was ousted after his teams didn’t meet expectations the last two seasons that yielded back-to-back 8-5 records.
With Herman, if anything, the Cougars have exceeded expectations.