The Temple Owls have now found themselves on one of the biggest stages in program history. Tomorrow afternoon, the 22nd ranked Owls (10-2) will battle the 19th ranked Houston Cougars (11-1) for the American Athletic Conference Championship. The teams will kick off at noon at TDECU Stadium in Houston.
Headlining the show will be the Houston offense, as the Temple defense will face potentially its toughest task to date. Houston scores over 40 points per game, and the majority of those originate at the helm. Greg Ward Jr. has been the centerpiece of the Cougars’ offense. A true duel threat, Ward has burned opponents both in the air and on the ground. The junior has scored 33 touchdowns this year (16 passing, 17 rushing), ranking first in the American. While rushing for just under 900 yards on the ground, Ward is also completing 69% of his passes and has topped 2,500 yards.
Ward and receiver Demarcus Ayers have been a lethal combination. Standing only 5’10, Ayers has 88 receptions for over 1100 yards. Last week against Navy, the tandem hooked up eight times for 161 yards and a touchdown. Ayers also threw a touchdown last week.
Ayers will be the focal point on the outside for Tavon Young (ankle), who sat out last week but is expected to play, and Sean Chandler. Chandler has impressed as a sophomore, tallying four interceptions while Young has shut down opponents on the outside. The defense has tallied more picks (16) than passing touchdowns allowed (11), and only four opposing receivers have topped 100 yards in a game against the Owls.
Complimenting Houston’s passing attack is running back Kenneth Farrow. Running the option with Ward, Farrow is a bruiser that averages 5.2 yards per carry. He has come into form as of late, punching in 12 touchdowns in his last eight games.
While the Cougars’ offense usually steals the show, the defense flies under the radar. Houston only allows 118 rushing yards per game, and has given up only 15 total rushing touchdowns on the year, third best in the AAC. Houston’s prowess showed last week in its throttling of then #15 Navy. Navy, a triple option team based upon the run, averaged 330 rushing yards per game going into its matchup with the Cougars. Houston held them to only 147 on the ground.
Houston’s stout defensive front will be a challenge for Jahad Thomas and the rest of Temple’s core four backfield (Hood, Armstead, and Gardner). Thomas returned to midseason form last week, carrying the ball 20 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns, but has been banged up lately. The emergence of David Hood and Jager Gardner is an added benefit to take the load off Thomas. Hood has rushed for 88 yards and a touchdown in the last two games, while Gardner has rushed for 62.
While shutting down the run game, Houston’s front seven has no problem getting to the quarterback. The Cougars have racked up 32 sacks on the year, led by senior linebacker, Elandon Roberts. Roberts ranks first in the AAC with 127 tackles and 17 for a loss, while also sacking opposing QBs a total of six times. He will be a force to be reckoned with, but the Temple offensive line has performed well. P.J. Walker has only been sacked 16 times. Furthermore, the anticipated return of center Kyle Friend should help to contain Roberts, an All-AAC First team selection.
One of the more intriguing battles tomorrow afternoon will come in the red zone. In 38 trips to the red zone, the Temple defense has only allowed opponents to convert 15 touchdowns, the best in the conference. The Owls have also come up with five interceptions while inside the 20. On the other side, the Cougars’ red zone offense ranks seventh in the conference. Down inside the 20, the Cougars turn to the run. They have totaled 33 rushing touchdowns in the red zone. The Owls have shown they are capable of putting an end to that. Opponents have only seven rushing touchdowns in the red zone.
In another stellar season, Tyler Matakevich will look to shut down the Cougar offense inside the 20. Two of Matakevich’s five INTs this year came in the red zone. The AAC Defensive Player of the Year has racked up 118 total tackles. With a veteran defensive line that has 28 tackles for loss and 33 sacks, the Owls will look to put a wrench in Houston’s offense. The defense has not allowed a touchdown in the last two week, momentum they will strive to carry over tomorrow.
Against a stingy Houston defense, the Owl offense will look to be consistent and play smart. That starts with a reinvented P.J. Walker, who threw only six interceptions this year. Over the last two games, Walker has come into form, completing 60% of his passes and totaling three touchdowns to compliment the run game. Walker has also found room on the ground, rushing for 49 yards and evading trouble, multiple times against Memphis.
Walker will have to find his taller receivers against an undersized Houston secondary. At his disposal, Romond Deloatch, Robby Anderson, Adonis Jennings and Ventell Bryant all stand at least 6-3. That bunch has 14 combined receiving touchdowns this year.
Two weeks ago, UConn handed Houston its first loss of the year. In a 20-17 victory, the Huskies held Farrow to only 46 yards on the ground while Ward sat out much of the game with an ankle injury. Temple will look to replicate UConn’s performance to come out on top.
With a strong running game that is finding its form, Temple will look to control the time of possession and keep the ball out of Ward’s hands. Temple won the time of possession by eight minutes against Memphis, and 14 minutes against UConn.
In a battle of a Houston’s high-powered offense versus Temple’s dominating defense, both teams will look to come out and make a statement early, and set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Both teams are eying a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl game with a win, and should be neck to neck until the final whistle.