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Greg Ward Jr. Too Much for Temple in AAC Championship Game

Steve Nurenberg/Icon Sportswire

Temple knew defending Greg Ward Jr. would be a challenge, considering he came into the American Athletic Conference championship game ranked 25th in individual total offense on a per game basis (282.9 yards per game) with 33 total touchdowns.

“You have to contain him, but have to keep him in the pocket,” Temple coach Matt Rhule told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “You also have to rush him, otherwise he will sit there and pick you apart.”

Well, as the Owls learned today, it’s one thing to say it but another to do it.

Ward tore up Temple’s vaunted defense on the ground, amassing 148 yards and two touchdowns on just 17 carries en route to most outstanding player of the game honors in Houston’s 24-13 victory.

The most frustrating part for Rhule and his team has to be that this is the third time they’ve been beaten by a dual-threat quarterback this year.

Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer shredded the Owls for 299 passing yards and a touchdown with 143 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and USF’s Quinton Flowers torched them for 230 yards and two touchdowns through the air with 90 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

Ward didn’t do much passing (11 of 21, 88 yards), but he didn’t need to, as the Cougars capitalized on a couple early turnovers from the Owls and held a 24-3 lead midway through the third quarter. Houston was in total protect the lead mode at that point, and relied on its defense to close out the win.

Honestly, Temple’s defense did a better job than expected defending Ward, given the huge days it allowed to Kizer and Flowers. But in the end, Ward’s athleticism won, as he routinely shook defenders, ran away from would-be tacklers, and flat-out made plays that most guys on a football field cannot. He’s a special talent, and should easily be the favorite to win the AAC offensive player of the year award next season, especially with Keenan Reynolds graduating and Paxton Lynch likely heading to the NFL.

December 5, 2015: Houston Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (1) prepares to stiff arm Temple Owls defensive back Will Hayes (32) during the Temple Owls at Houston Cougars game at TDECU Stadium, Houston, Texas. (Photo by Ken Murray/ICON Sportswire)

December 5, 2015: Houston Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (1) prepares to stiff arm Temple Owls defensive back Will Hayes (32) during the Temple Owls at Houston Cougars game at TDECU Stadium, Houston, Texas. (Photo by Ken Murray/ICON Sportswire)

With his performance today, Ward became the first quarterback in Houston history to rush for 1,000 yards (1,041), and that was with him essentially missing the UConn game due to injury.

Ward’s effort also led the Cougars to a 12-1 record under first-year head coach Tom Herman, and stamped their ticket as the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl representative. Those 12 wins are the most Houston has tallied since Kevin Sumlin and Case Keenum racked up 13 back in 2011.

Whichever Power Five team ends up squaring off with Houston on New Year’s Day is going to have its hands full. Herman led the Ohio State offense to a national title last season, so the stage certainly won’t be too big for him. That experience will be valuable in having his team prepared and keeping them grounded on game day, as the Cougars will look to make a splash on the national scene.

With Herman agreeing to a new five-year deal to remain head coach of the Cougars, this feels like just the beginning of something special in Houston.

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