Post Game Analysis: Temple AAC Championship

As has been the case all season, it was a total team effort as your Houston Cougars defeated the Temple Owls 24-13 before a rabid crowd of 35,721 at TDECU Stadium Saturday afternoon to win the inaugural American Athletic Conference Championship game. The win gave the team its 11th conference championship in program history and first since the 2006 Conference USA championship.

At 13-1 and playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game (the announcement on where the Coogs are playing has not been made as of this writing), it goes without saying that first year head coach Tom Herman and his staff have done a phenomenal job in their first season along Cullen Boulevard. The head coach on the win after the game via, “It was an overwhelming sense of pride in our guys and team. None of this would be possible without leaders in that locker room buying in from day one and dragging the rest of the team with them. We have the finest coaching staff in the entire country, and we have the best strength staff as well, that continue to hammer home our culture when we’re not around. The trophy was really just a representation of that buy in, especially these older guys had, from day one.”

Those assistant coaches definitely need mentioning on what they’ve done this season not only in teaching fundamentals, but in getting each and every backup ready as injuries have totally ravaged the team throughout the season. It all starts with defensive coordinator Todd Orlando (who’s also the linebackers coach) and his side of the ball; defensive line coach Oscar Giles, safeties coach Craig Naivar, and corner backs (and special teams) coach Jason Washington. Usually when a new staff comes in they want to change things up and emphasize their philosophy. What Orlando and his staff have done is amazing; while adding their philosophy, IE pressure, pressure and more pressure, he and his staff have allowed the “Third Ward Defense” to remain who they are; a group of young men who fly to the ball, create turnovers and play with “swag.” The culture change defensively that David Gibbs and his staff created three seasons ago has remained steadfast, with Orlando adding his strengths as a coach.

Offensive coordinator (and quarterbacks coach) Major Applewhite has done a remarkable job as well in adjusting his game plan based on who’s available that particular week, with the Temple game no different as star wide receiver Demarcus Ayers was basically a decoy with the shoulder issue which has been a hindrance for most of the season as he was shutout receptions wise for the first time this season. Applewhite’s assistants include wide receivers coach (and recruiting coordinator) Drew Mehringer, running backs coach Kenneth Pope, tight ends coach Corby Meekins and offensive line coach Derek Warehime. What Pope has done with Brandon Wilson, switching from corner last week to running back after not playing the position since his senior year in high school (4 years ago), after Kenneth Farrow went down with a sprained ankle two weeks ago, with backup Ryan Jackson having been lost for the season weeks before that, well words simply cannot describe. All Wilson has done is rush for 181 yards on 33 carries with 2 touchdowns over the past two weeks against stout Navy and Temple defenses, with 70 yards on just 11 carries Saturday versus Temple. This rushing production (233 yards against a defense allowing just over 117) was behind the TENTH different starting offensive line this season. The unit of Alex Cooper, Kameron Eloph, Will Noble, Colton Freeman and Carter Wall from left to right tackle was the ninth different starting lineup in a row due to injuries. This week Mason Denley, who started six of the past seven games at left guard was out for undisclosed reasons. Eloph started the season as a defensive tackle, moving to the O-line after the SMU game eight games ago. ELEVEN linemen have had to contribute this season in one way or another. Noble and Eloph are true freshman, with Freeman and Denley being redshirt freshmen. Marcus Oliver (who started 6 games at left tackle until an ankle sprain sidelined him), along with Josh Thomas (one game starter early before a knee injury finished his season) are both just true sophomores. Ben Dew (the starter at left guard the first two games) and Zach Johnson (two game starter at right tackle) are both seniors who were lost for the season after the Louisville and SMU contests, 11 and 8 games ago respectively. What Warehime has done with this line, again, is simply amazing.

Herman also mentioned having the best strength-and-conditioning staff. Yancy McKnight and assistants Rod Grace and Ryan Deatrick and their conditioning program have had a lot to do with the team outscoring its opponents 266 to 126, the third largest margin in the nation.

Finally, Herman mentioned during his post game presser that this season would not have been the success it’s been without the senior leadership believing in the staff, so a special shout-out to team captains Farrow, Cooper, safety Adrian McDonald and linebacker Elandon Roberts also has to be made because without their buying into Herman’s system early during preseason workouts, none of the success on the field would have been possible this season

As for Saturday’s battle, the game began where it always does for the Coogs, the defense setting the tempo behind an early turnover. On Temple’s first possession Orlando dialed up a beautifully timed zone blitz with Roberts (5 tackles, 3 QB hurries and a forced fumble) rushing up the A-gap forcing Temple QB PJ Walker to throw before he wanted. Outside linebacker Tyus Bowser dropped back to intercept the pass along the right sideline, the Coogs 17th interception of the season and 30th forced turnover overall. On the Owls next possession Roberts would force a fumble as Temple was driving inside Houston’s red zone, with safety Trevon Stewart (game leading 8 tackles) recovering at the Coogs 9-yard line as the good guys won the turnover battle two to zero. Their plus-17 margin is second in the nation and they’ve forced 103 turnovers going back to Gibbs first season as DC, 2013.

The front seven of Tomme Mark, B.J. Singleton and Cameron Malveaux (10 combined tackles) along the line with Roberts at one middle linebacker spot, Mathew Adams next to him, and Steven Taylor (6 tackles and a sack) and Bowser at the outside backer spots, held Temple to only 98 rushing yards and have held opponents to only 116 per game all season, ranking them 12th in all the nation. Malveaux had 2 passes broken up via batted balls at the line of scrimmage, including a key one on a fourth-and-four early in the third quarter stopping a potential Temple scoring drive at the Coogs 29-yard line.

While Orlando’s blitzes couldn’t get to Walker later in the game, the “Jack Boyz,” Houston’s secondary, did a great job battling with Temple’s receivers in man coverage for most of the game, though they did allow 287 passing yards on 26-of-44 completions (many completions downfield between defenders when in zone coverage). Cornerback William Jackson III battled Temple wide receiver Robby Anderson (150 yards on 12 receptions) and had a single game record 7 pass breakups and has a season record of 24. With Wilson at running back for the second straight game, Jeremy Winchester had 4 tackles and a beautiful pass break-up on a third down that forced a field goal for Temple’s final points of the game. Nickel back Lee Hightower added 5 tackles as well.

Offensively, this game was all about QB Greg Ward Jr. The junior signal caller only passed for 88 yards on 11-of-21 completions, but the wildcard was his legs as I mentioned in my pre-game article. Temple allowed only 117.2 rushing yards per game entering play Saturday, good for 12th nationally and first in the conference. Behind Ward’s 148 yards (on 17 carries) and 2 TDs, the Coogs rushed for 233 for the game and average 239.5 per game for the season, good for 13th nationally. Ward looked like a point guard in the run game with his decision making on when to keep the ball or give to running backs Wilson or Javin Webb (21 yards on 10 carries including the first TD of the game) on the zone read option game. Applewhite also called a nice game on called runs, especially on Ward’s called draw for his 47-yard TD on third-and-two, giving the Coogs a 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter. On the play Webb acted as lead blocker with the wide receivers holding blocks downfield as well as tight end Tyler McCloskey. The offensive line as mentioned did a nice job on the inside zone rushing game, early on anyway, as Wilson added 70 yards on 11 carries.

Applewhite also dialed up a TD in the passing game with receiver Linell Bonner throwing a 17-yard strike to McCloskey on a reverse pass, which led to a 10-yard draw two plays later, giving the Coogs an insurmountable 24-3 lead early in the third. With Ayers not contributing due to his bad shoulder, Chance Allen (35 yards on 3 receptions), Steven Dunbar (11 yards on a catch) and reserve John Leday (2 for 13 yards) contributed as much as they could considering Ward didn’t have much time to get them the ball as the game progressed. The Coogs running backs added to the passing game with Wilson catching 3 swing passes for 22 yards and McCloskey 2 for 25. Webb added a catch for minus-1 yards.

Special teams wise the Coogs did just enough to help contribute to the win. Punter Logan Piper punted six times for just a 36.5 yard average, though he did place 2 punts inside Temple’s 20 yard line. Behind Piper and kicker Ty Cummings kickoffs, Temple returned 2 punts for 4 yards and 4 kickoffs for 80 yards which were largely responsible for Temple’s average starting field position being its own 25-yard line. With Ayers bad shoulder he only returned his 2 punts for a combined 5 yards. Wilson and Webb combined to return their 4 kickoffs for only 59 yards but thanks to the defensive effort, the Coogs offense had a starting field position of their own 30-yard line. Cummings also made his only field goal attempt, a 24 yarder and continues to be perfect on the season on all seven attempts.

As for what won the game for the Coogs, they converted two of three red zone trips into touchdowns to Temple’s one out of three with the one very costly turnover. Houston also committed only 5 penalties for 40 yards. Ward’s feet and Applewhite also having the offense run up-tempo early on, tiring out the Temple D leading to two quick scores to give them the breathing room they needed to take the pressure off greatly contributed to their twelve win in thirteen games this season.

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