Tom Herman couldn’t have scripted a better beginning to today’s football game. The Houston defense forced a bad throw that became an interception on the fourth play of the game. Ten plays and 36 yards later, the Cougars were up 7-0 after Javin Webb’s one-yard touchdown run.
On Temple’s next possession, the Owls moved quickly down the field until Houston’s Elandon Roberts forced a fumble that was recovered by his teammate Trevon Stewart. The Cougars didn’t score off that turnover, but it firmly announced that the defense was in charge of this game and that Temple was going to need a miracle to pull off the win.
The Cougars went on to win the game 24-13 to improve to 11-1 on the season. The win established the Cougars as the best team in the American Athletic Conference, beating a Temple (10-3) team that was perhaps the best football team the Cougars faced this season. And though the bowl pairings won’t be announced until tomorrow, the win pretty much guaranteed that the Cougars will be playing in one of the six major New Year’s bowl games.
“That [a major bowl] would be extremely special for this team, and this university, to be on that national stage,” Houston head coach Tom Herman said after the game. “You can’t buy that kind of advertisement, and you can’t buy that kind of energy and enthusiasm that that brings to a university.”
Temple gained more yards than the Cougars (385 to 339). Temple possessed the ball longer than the Cougars. But the Cougars did what the Cougars have done all year. The team was two-for-two on fourth down. It won the turnover battle, and it got points off of the turnovers. The defense got key stops when key stops were most needed.
Temple’s head coach, Matt Rhule, acknowledged his team was probably a bit nervous to start the game, and that by the time his players recovered, the Cougars had jumped out to the lead. Houston’s Herman said that his team, too, was probably a bit nervous, but the early turnover followed by the quick TD was all that it needed for UH to calm down and take charge.
"That certainly allowed momentum, for sure, and we got some momentum, obviously got us a lead which we didn’t relinquish,” Herman said. “But I think it calmed our guys down a little bit. Especially offensively. We watched a lot of film on these guys; we knew how good they were on defense. For our offense to take the ball after the turnover and go down and score a touchdown, I think, kind of a big sigh of, 'Hey, we can go down and do this against this defense.'”
The defense paced that momentum for the rest of the game, yet it could only do so much. That’s where the game’s Most Important Player, Greg Ward Jr., came into play. Ward finished 149 yards rushing and 88 yards passing, and he scored two of the team’s touchdowns. The second touchdown put the Cougars up 17-0 in the second quarter, and it was a beautiful, glorious run of 47 yards. He finished the UH scoring in the third quarter when he ran for 10 yards to make the score 24-3.
The Cougars were shut out after Ward’s second TD, and Temple scored a touchdown and hit a field goal to pull to within 24-13 midway through the fourth quarter. But the Cougar defense came through when it needed to, and even though the offense wasn’t able to do anything, Temple found itself unable to get any closer.
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It’s been quite the year for Herman, and for his team. He was hired last December, but finished out his duties as offensive coordinator for Ohio State as it won the national title. He came to Houston with the goal of changing the culture. He asked the players to buy into his vision without yet being able to offer up tangible results. If the players don’t buy into the vision, then Herman’s dreams are for naught. But the players did buy in, and the result was a conference championship and players standing on a stage at the middle of TDECU Stadium while fans rushed the field in celebration.
The result is a Houston football team doing what a Cougar football team hasn’t done in more than 20 years, and that’s play in a major New Year’s bowl game. The Jack Pardee teams didn’t do that. Kevin Sumlin’s teams never did that. But Tom Herman’s first UH team is.
“Just being able to play in a New Year’s Eve bowl, or a New Year’s bowl, is going to be great for the team and also the university and all of the great players that have come through here,” linebacker Elandon Roberts said. “The other day, [former UH great and Heisman winner] Andre Ware came and talked to us. He just told us about the great people that had been in our numbers before us. And you research that, and after winning the game, it’s a great honor to be able to play like this, and go to the championship with knowing that you're wearing a guy’s number that was All-American and got to the next level.”
So Herman probably couldn’t have written a better script than what happened to the Cougars today. But the season’s not over yet. There’s still one game left on the biggest stage the Cougars have visited in decades. That’s probably not something Herman would’ve scripted for his team when he took over. But as the saying goes, reality is always better than fiction.