AAC Notebook: Houston, Temple to play for title

The Sports Xchange

November 29, 2015 at 9:18 pm.

Nov 27, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (1) attempts a pass during the fourth quarter against the Navy Midshipmen at TDECU Stadium. The Cougars defeated the Midshipmen 52-31. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 27, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. (1) attempts a pass during the fourth quarter against the Navy Midshipmen at TDECU Stadium. The Cougars defeated the Midshipmen 52-31. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Houston and Temple earned the right to meet in the American Athletic Conference title game this weekend, setting up a classic matchup between an explosive offense and a shutdown defense.

The Cougars (11-1) knocked off Navy 52-31 in a winner-take-all regular season finale, winning the AAC West. Houston’s defense did a nice job of shutting down the triple option, but it was the revitalization of the offense that was the big story. After struggling in 20-17 a loss to Connecticut the week before, the Cougars had 555 yards of total offense against the Midshipmen.

“It was nice to have an offense back,” coach Tom Herman said. “That was a really good show, and [offensive coordinator Major] Applewhite and the entire offensive staff had an unbelievable game plan. Their guys went out an executed. It’s one thing to have a good plan but another to go execute that plan, and our guys certainly did that.”

Houston was an incredible 16 for 19 on third down conversion attempts, and made both of its fourth down chances. It’s worth noting that the struggles against the Huskies came with quarterback Greg Ward sidelined nearly the entire game with an ankle injury. As Friday’sgame showed, this is a much different team with him healthy.

“I’m just excited that coach gave me another chance to be out here,” Ward said. “It was eating me up all week that I wasn’t playing. I wasn’t going to go out there and be 50 percent and give my team very little and possibly hurt the offense.”

Temple looked like the least likely team to be here a couple of weeks ago, after losing the Notre Dame and South Florida and suddenly surrendering a lot of points every time out. But the Owls closed strong, and haven’t allowed a touchdown in either of the last two games including Saturday’s victory over a Connecticut team that’s the only team to knock off the Cougars this season.

“I was proud of our guys that we won this game because this was a championship for us,” Temple coach Matt Rhule said. “To win the East is a big deal for us, as well as having the chance to be in the first ever [AAC] championship game. As I just told the guys, the rewards are great but what I want to see is for us to play great in big moments. I want to see us answer the call in big moments and I thought we did that tonight.”

Houston and Temple did not meet during the regular season, but the Cougars handled the Owls easily 31-10 when the teams met a year ago.

“I’m excited; I can’t wait to play them,” Temple linebacker Tyler Matakevich said. “They got us last year because they were a more physical team. We lost last year but we will see what will happen this year.”


Game: South Florida 44, Central Florida 3. The Knights scored first, then never awoke again in ending its season with a blowout loss at home. It was par for the course for a team that scored more than 16 points just twice all season.

Takeaway: The George O’Leary era began with an 0-11 record in 2004, and it ended with an 0-12 finish in 2015. Two years removed from the Fiesta Bowl, Central Florida looks a long way from anywhere close to that level now, and finding the right choice to take over the program will be critical to the program’s future.

Next: Season Complete

CINCINNATI (7-5, 4-4)

Game: Cincinnati 19, East Carolina 16. Andrew Gantz kicked a 42-yard field goal as time expired to give the Bearcats the victory on the road. He had missed an extra point earlier in the game, as well as a 44-yard attempt in the fourth quarter.

Takeaway: The Bearcats finish the regular season at 7-5, and will make a bowl game somewhere. But it’s still a disappointing effort from a team most expected to win its division and be a part of this week’s AAC title game.

Next: TBD

CONNECTICUT (6-6, 4-4)

Game: Temple 27, Connecticut 3. The Huskies failed to get a first down on 8 of its 11 drives and finished with just 138 yards in falling to the No. 25 Owls. Connecticut didn’t score until Bobby Puyol field goal with 5:51 to play, and at that point the team was already trailing 27-0.

Takeaway: Connecticut is bowl-eligible despite the loss, and will definitely be playing somewhere in the postseason. But coach Bob Diaco will have to spend the extra practices rediscovering his offense, which was unable to gain any traction in the loss to the Owls.

Next: TBD

EAST CAROLINA (5-7, 3-5)

Game: Game: Cincinnati 19, East Carolina 16. East Carolina saw its bowl hopes dashed in agonizing fashion, as Cincinnati kicked a field goal as time expired to earn a three-point win. The defense allowed the Bearcats to make 15 of its 22 third down conversion attempts.

Takeaway: The loss ends a turbulent season for the Pirates, which saw its starting quarterback injured just before the season began and never developed the consistency that East Carolina traditionally has on offense. It’s the first losing season at ECU since 2011, and the first time the program has had a conference record below .500 since 2004.

Next: Season complete.

HOUSTON (11-1, 7-1)

Game: Houston 52, Navy 31. The Cougars offense had no problems with the Midshipmen, as Greg Ward threw for 308 yards to lead Houston to a convincing win at home. The victory gave Houston the AAC West title and a berth in the conference championship game this weekend.

Takeaway: It was nice to see the Houston offense erupt after struggling against Connecticut the previous week. Greg Ward Jr. still isn’t 100 percent, but as he showed on Friday he’s more than healthy enough to do damage to AAC foes.

Next: vs. Temple, Dec. 5

MEMPHIS (9-3, 5-3)

Game: Memphis 63, Southern Methodist 0. The Tigers ended the regular season with a dominating performance, holding the Mustangs under 100 yards of total offense. The defense also returned two fumbles for touchdowns, bolstering an offense that moved the ball pretty well on its own — with 483 total yards.

Takeaway: The Tigers were strong on Senior Day, but it might have been the finale for its coach as well. Reports this weekend had coach Justin Fuente heading to Virginia Tech to replace the departing Frank Beamer.

Next: TBD.

NAVY (10-2, 7-1)

Game: Houston 52, Navy 31. Keenan Reynolds threw for 312 yards, but the Midshipmen had no answer for the Cougars offense and fell in the de facto AAC West title game. The loss snapped a five-game winning streak.

Takeaway: Navy’s defense allowed Houston to convert on 16 of its 19 third down attempts, and on both of its fourth down chances. That’s what will likely send Navy to the Military Bowl following the traditional season-ender against Army, rather than a more prominent game.

Next: vs. Army, Dec. 12


Game: Memphis 63, Southern Methodist 0. The Mustangs couldn’t build on the momentum from the previous week’s Senior Day victory over Tulane, looking flat in a loss at Memphis. The Tigers led 56-0 by halftime, with Paxton Lynch throwing seven touchdown passes before the break

Takeaway: SMU played its worst game of the season in the finale, failing to even break the 100-yard barrier on offense. Chad Morris has a lot to do on both sides of the ball now that his first year is complete, and recruiting better players is a major part of that task list.

Next: Season complete

SOUTH FLORIDA (8-4, 6-2)

Game: South Florida 44, Central Florida 3. South Florida continued its late-season search by dominating its rival on Thanksgiving. Quinton Flowers threw for three touchdown passes, and Marlon Mack broke the 100-yard barrier for the eighth time this season.

Takeaway: The win wasn’t enough to get the Bulls to the AAC championship game, thanks to Temple’s victory over Connecticut on Saturday night. But the four-game winning streak to end the regular season — which featured three games in a row with 44 or more points — make this a team to watch both in its bowl game and in 2016.

Next: TBD.

TEMPLE (10-2, 7-1)

Game: Temple 27, Connecticut 3. The Owls defense dominated the Huskies, holding its opponent without a touchdown for the second game in a row as Temple earned a spot in the American Athletic Conference title game with a victory on Senior Night. Jahad Thomas ran for a pair of touchdowns, while P.J. Walker threw for 160 yards and another score.

Takeaway: The Temple defense, which struggled mightily during earlier in the month, appears to be back on track. It will face its greatest challenge this weekend, however, against a high-powered Houston attack led by dual-threat quarterback Greg Ward Jr.

Next: at Houston, Dec. 5.

TULANE (3-9, 1-7)

Game: Tulsa 45, Tulane 34. Tulane’s offense put up big numbers, but critical fourth-quarter mistakes doomed the Green Wave in the season finale. Jordy Joseph tossed four touchdown passes, but threw a pair of pick sixes in the fourth quarter that proved to be the difference.

Takeaway: The loss ends Tulane’s season with a disappointing 3-9 record. When it takes the field again, it will be with a new coach — Curtis Johnson was fired after four seasons.

Next: Season complete.

TULSA (6-6, 3-5)

Game: Tulsa 45, Tulane 34. Tulsa scored on a pair of pick sixes in the fourth quarter to earn an 11-point victory and qualify for a bowl game. The Golden Hurricane trailed by 10 midway through the fourth quarter before scoring the game’s final 21 points.

Takeaway: Coach Philip Montgomery not only got his team to the postseason, but the valuable extra practice time that goes with it. It’s no exaggeration to say that the final7:40 of the final game of the season made the entire campaign a success.

Next: TBD.


–For three quarters, it looked like Philip Montgomery’s first season at the helm of the Tulsa football program would end just short of a bowl game.

The Golden Hurricane trailed at Tulane 27-24 entering the fourth quarter, and 34-24 after a Jordy Joseph touchdown pass to Andrew Hicks with 7:40 to play. But the offense marched right down the field with a four-play, 75-yard drive in 55 seconds. Zack Langer’s touchdown run got the team back within a field goal with 6:45 left.

Then, the defense took over.

Craig Suits took an interception 28 yards to the end zone to give Tulsa its first lead since the first quarter. Then, as Tulane was driving for the go-ahead score, Kolton Shindelar picked off another Joseph pass and ran it back 89 yards for another score with1:12 to play, giving the Golden Hurricane a 45-34 win — and bowl-eligibility.

“I’m so proud of our football team,” Montgomery said. “We’re down at halftime, we sit and talk and make some adjustments, and my message to them before we came out [for the second half] was that we’re fixing to win this game. Those guys just continued to battle, continued to fight.”

Befitting an up-and-down season, the game wasn’t secured until the final moments. Montgomery noted how well his team responded with its backs against the wall.

“I just kept telling our team, ‘how much do you want it? How much passion can you play with right now?’ The energy level has to stay completely high,” Montgomery said. “They’ve battled all year long, that’s been our M.O. We’ve been a blue-collar team from day one. We’ve had to fight every day, win or lose. Our guys fight to the bitter end, and tonight, what can you say?”

–Eight of the 12 American Athletic Conference teams qualified for bowl games. For the four that didn’t, it’s time to start planning for next year.

At least two teams will be doing so with a new coach. Central Florida made that decision in October when George O’Leary stepped down. The second opening was made official over the weekend, when Tulane fired Curtis Johnson after four seasons.

Johnson went 15-34 at Tulane, with the highlight being a 7-6 record in 2013 that culminated with a trip to the New Orleans Bowl. Though the Green Wave lost that game to Louisiana-Lafayette, it marked the first bowl bid of any kind for the program in 11 seasons.

But that also marked the team’s last season in Conference USA. Since moving to the AAC, Tulane has suffered through back-to-back 3-9 campaigns. The fact that athletic director Rick Dickson had previously announced his intention to depart made Johnson’s seat even hotter.

Tulane hasn’t yet announced a replacement for Dixon, but hopes to have that ready in the coming days. Whoever gets that job will be responsible for making the football coaching hire.

–Eight American Athletic Conference teams will be playing in bowl games. Surprisingly, East Carolina won’t be among them.

The Pirates had gone to bowl games in three consecutive seasons, and eight of the last nine. But injuries and inconsistency caught up to ECU in 2015, and it needed a victory against Cincinnati in the regular-season finale to finish .500 and retain bowl-eligibility.

It didn’t happen. The Pirates, epitomizing their entire season, came agonizingly close to doing great things, but ultimately made too many mistakes, left too many opportunities unrealized, and fell just short of their goals, losing on a last-second field goal.

“Right before the season started, [Kurt Benkert] went down and Cody Keith got hurt,” coach Ruffin McNeill said about the adversity his team has faced. “But we weren’t making any excuses, and that’s reality. The kids worked hard — I told them in there, they’ve never had a day that they did not work hard. A lot of teams would have folded, a lot of teams would have quit, a lot of teams would not have been fighting like that today after the tough losses they’ve had. I’ very proud of them after that.”

It’s a letdown for a senior class that had experienced so much success, but McNeill only takes away fond memories of his departing players.

“Heart, never stop, fighting, courage, bravery, going through adversity, life lessons learned,” McNeill said when asked what he would remember. “[They] could have quit, could’ve stopped playing hard, storm off the field pouting, start that going on. A lot of times that happens when you’re not having success you expect on the field. Those guys you saw today will walk out with their degrees, all of them. Some of them already have it now, but everyone will by May.”

QUOTE TO NOTE: “This was the best week of practice we’ve had. From Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, this was by far the best we could practice for whatever reason. Credit to coaching staff; credit to players; credit to leaders. There was no doubt in my mind when I walked off the field Wednesday after practice, I said, ‘there’s something going on here where these guys are dialed in; they’re locked in.’ We’ve had a great week of practice, so to see how they went out and performed, I don t know if it tells me much, but how they came out and prepared did.” — Houston coach Tom Herman, on getting ready for Navy.



1. It’s no small thing that Houston gets to host the AAC championship game. The Cougars are undefeated at home this season, and haven’t lost at home since Tulane beat them 31-24 on Nov. 8, 2014.

2. Temple will rely on its defense to shut down Houston this weekend. The Owls have held four of its 12 opponents without an offensive touchdown this season, with one of those being a ranked Memphis squad.

3. Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds scored another rushing touchdown in the loss to Houston, which leaves him tied with Montee Ball for the NCAA career TD record for FBS teams. He already holds the record for rushing touchdowns heading into the Army game on Dec. 12.

4. Justin Fuente became the first AAC coach to change teams, announced as the Virginia Tech coach on Sunday. He might not be the last — Houston’s Tom Herman and Temple’s Matt Rhule will be among those discussed for high-profile jobs this offseason.

5. Shaq Washington has rewritten the Cincinnati record book. The senior slot receiver set a record with 15 catches in Saturday’s victory over East Carolina. In doing so, he broke the school record for receptions in a season, and he already had the career receptions mark.