In a season that came largely out of nowhere for just about everyone involved with Houston Cougar football, it was hard not to feel the pressure of another conference championship game as a big favorite.
Not only had this 2015 Cougar team defied pre season expectations, but they defied just about every qualitative or quantitative metric to even get this far. There were so many different points prior to this where myself (and I’m sure many other Cougar fans) expected the dream season to come crashing down around us.
There were some close calls and even the kind of loss that had derailed many other Cougar seasons. But when it came time to take care of this must win game, Cougar football got the result it had seen slip through their fingers 4 years earlier.
Leading into the Game:
By now I have recapped the 2015 regular season a fair amount in this series and if you’re reading this you probably have a good idea what happened that year. I say this not to excuse myself from writing this preamble to the game section.
But I am going to focus more on the narrow margins between the 2015 season and many other good, but not great 21st century Cougar football seasons.
If you believed head coach Tom Herman himself (I wouldn’t recommend this) the Coogs’ week 2 win over Louisville was a catalyst for the awesome run the team went on to start the year.
On the road against the Cardinals, the Coogs escaped with a 34-31 win thanks to Greg Ward Jr finding DeMarcus Ayers for a TD pass with 3 minutes left in the game and the Coogs blocking a potentially game-tying field goal in the final minute.
After the win over Louisville the Coogs took care of a soft middle of the schedule winning 6 straight games against teams that would all finish 2015 with a losing record.
But along the way the Cougar offense suffered several injuries, mainly along the offensive line. Against SMU in early October, in the space of a quarter the Coogs lost 2 linemen to extended or season ending injuries.
Homecoming against Cincy was a bizarre and rainy game where its hard to even figure out how the Coogs escaped with a win. On one series where it looked like UH was going to settle for a field goal in the red zone, Cincy was called for 2 unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and UH scored. The Bearcats threw for 523 yards and out gained the Coogs by 162 yards and yet lost 33-30.
Somehow the following week’s game against #25 Memphis was an even more strange and unlikely Cougar win. The Tigers suffocated the UH offense and Ward left the game injured at halftime, replaced by backup QB Kyle Postma.
On the first play of the 4th quarter Memphis scored a touchdown to go up 34-14 and I remember vividly sitting with my dad and cursing my decision to choose this game for us to see together. The Coogs would score touchdowns on 3 of their next 4 possessions and not allow another Memphis score.
Still, it took future NFL kicker Jake Elliott missing a 48-yard field goal as time expired for the Cougars to complete the comeback win over Memphis and improve to 10-0 on the season. Up at UConn not having Ward at QB, the dubious ejection of defensive star Elandon Roberts and a hyped opponent led to a 20-17 upset loss.
The Coogs emphatically responded to that loss by beating the best Navy team in many decades 52-31 on the day after Thanksgiving with the return of Ward and an excellent game from the Cougar defense against the Midshipmen option attack (here’s a more thorough breakdown of the game).
While the Coogs had cleared many hurdles to get this far, they still had a salty opponent in the AAC title game in the form of the Temple Owls.
Temple was in something of a football renaissance after being booted from the Big East about a decade prior. Head coach Matt Rhule was previously an assistant at Temple during the initial turnaround from 2006-11 and was named head coach in 2013.
In the opening week of the season Temple defeated Penn State 27-10, the first such win by the Owls since 1941. Their season went well enough that ESPN’s College Gameday actually went to Philadelphia when the Owls took on Notre Dame, a 24-20 loss. Two weeks later they dropped their only conference game of the regular season on the road at USF.
Temple won with a stingy defense and high school teammates PJ Walker and Jahad Thomas anchoring the offense. If the Owls were going to win this game, it would be by slowing the game down and keeping the score in the teens or low-20s like UConn did a few weeks prior.
The parallels between this game and the 2011 CUSA championship are at least notable. Both were were 11 AM central time kickoffs, Cougar home games and featured an opponent with a tough defense who was the odds-on underdog.
On the game’s 1st possession, Tyus Bowser intercepted a Walker pass and got the Cougar offense started at their opponents’ 36-yard line. It took the Coogs 10 plays to get there, but they were able to cash in on the Owls’ mistake and went up 7-0 on a 1-yard TD run by backup RB Javin Webb.
Temple was able to get into Cougar territory on their next possession, but Elandon Roberts forced a fumble from star receiver Robby Anderson and Trevon Stewart recovered it. Neither team would score in the remainder of the 1st quarter.
Early in the 2nd quarter the Coogs would get on the board again when their drive stalled at the Temple 6 and Ty Cummings hit a field goal to increase the Cougar lead to 10.
Two Cougar possessions later, Ward would make a few Owl defenders miss at the line of scrimmage and then tight roped the sideline 47 yards into the end zone for a Cougar touchdown. While this game hadn’t been the high-scoring affair this fan base had become accustomed to, a 17-point lead against Temple near halftime calmed the nerves somewhat.
Right before the end of the 1st half Temple managed a field goal to cut the Coogs lead to 17-3 going into halftime.
The teams traded empty offensive possessions to begin the 2nd half and on the Coogs’ 2nd possession Ward was a shoestring tackle by Delvon Randall away from scoring again. 3 plays later Ward would score his 2nd touchdown of the day from 10 yards out and the Coogs were up 24-3.
That would be the last touchdown of the day for the Coogs, but that was all the Coogs would really need. On their next possession the Owls would respond with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Walker finding Anderson for a 13-yard TD reception for their first and only touchdown of this game.
In the 4th quarter Temple was only able to manage a field goal, to cut the Cougar lead to 24-13.
That would ultimately be the final score of this one as for the 2nd time in as many weeks, Cougar students and fans streamed onto the field to celebrate the program’s first conference title in nearly a decade. This game was the first football conference championship game held by the AAC, giving the Coogs a small footnote in the history books.
Ward would only throw for 88 yards, a season-low in games he started, but he also rushed for a game-high 148 yards and 2 TDs. After beginning his career during the nadir of the 2012 season, Trevon Stewart’s last game on campus ended with him leading team in tackles and a champion. William Jackson III also had an incredible 7 pass break-ups.
Unlike many teams before them, the Coogs didn’t let the moment of a big game become too much for them. I’ll always remember the pure joy of running on the field with friends and celebrating an incredible season that none of us expected only a few months prior.
Winning the championship game against Temple not only had the obvious implications of winning conference hardware, but it meant the Coogs were a lock to get the New Year’s 6 bowl slot reserved for the best team outside the ‘Power 5’ conferences.
This meant the Coogs would be going to their biggest postseason game since the Cotton Bowl following the 1979 season. Quickly we found out that the location and opponent were going to be the Peach Bowl and would be facing Florida State.
I won’t go in depth on that game here, because you might notice it has been missing from this countdown and there’s 1 game left in this 19-game countdown.
But we know how that game went and that wouldn’t have been possible without the Coogs taking care of business one last time at home in 2015 against an AAC opponent.