Maybe it would’ve been different if Temple hadn’t turned it over its first two possessions, the first leading directly to a quick Houston touchdown, the second short-circuiting a promising drive that might’ve led to the tying score.
Maybe it would’ve been different if they’d been playing at the Linc rather than noisy Texas. Since both went 7-1 in American Athletic Conference play, the Owls were essentially being “punished” for their non-conference loss to Notre Dame — along with upsetting Penn State — while the Cougars beat up on Tennessee Tech, Texas State and Vanderbilt at home and won at Louisville. The home field advantage was evident.
Maybe it would’ve been different had Temple adjusted earlier to Houston’s fast-paced — Chip Kelly style offense, which clearly had them off balance the first half. Or if their offense had been more effective running the ball and not put them in so many third-and-longs.
Maybe if all or at least some of those things played out differently the Owls would be celebrating as AAC champions today and getting ready to face Florida State on New Year’s Eve Day in the Peach Bowl. Instead they’ll have to settle for a Dec. 22 date with Toledo in the Marmot Boca Raton Bowl.
Or maybe not.
Maybe, Houston, with lightning quick Greg Ward Jr. running them ragged and a defense that frustrated them most of the day, was simply the better team in a 24-13 game reminiscent of the Owls’ other losses. Notre Dame’s DeShone Keyser and South Florida’s Quinton Flowers, also gave them fits with their multi-dimension run-pass skills.
But they simply had no answer for Ward, who rambled for 148 yards and two touchdowns, often turning seemingly nothing plays into big gains.
“We played really good defense at times, but he was just a difference maker,” said a disappointed but realistic Matt Rhule, whose 10-3 squad fought gamely after digging a 17-0 first half hole for itself, which was simply too deep. “He has been all year. At the end of the day, when a guy is a great player, he’s a great player. He’s hard to defend.”
It wasn’t as if the 5-foot-11, 185 pound Ward caught anyone by surprise. After all, he’s been the driving force behind 12-1 Houston’s emergence under first year coach Tom Herman, who was handed a five-year extension Friday. But knowing it is one thing.
Stopping it proved to be quite another.
“He’s one heck of a player," said linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who for the first game all season did not lead have sole possession of his team lead in tackles. “He just keeps plays alive with his feet. Coach (Phil) Snow (the defensive coordinator) put us literally in the perfect situations, but we just missed plays
“It’s definitely frustrating.”
Equally frustrating was the offense’s inability to sustain an attack. After P.J. Walker forced an early interception to avoid a sack, then Robby Anderson fumbled inside the Cougar 10 to mar his best day as an Owl (12 receptions for 150 yards and a touchdown), Temple settled down.
But whenever the Owls seemed poised to cut into what became a 24-3 bulge early in the second half, Houston had the answer.
"We wanted to come out and run, but at times we had a few negative plays,” said Walker, who spent much of the day under siege from Houston’s blitzes and heavy pass rush which sacked him four times. “That’s what hurt us, the negative plays, getting behind the sticks, things like that. They fly around and make plays. They do a great job with the disguises and blitzes. They try to win the turnover battle.”
After those two early glitches the Owls never coughed it up, though bad snaps on Temple’s final possession prevented Walker from having a shot to make it a one-score game late, with a chance perhaps to make something happen. The defense came up empty on the turnover front, as Ward threw just enough (11-for-21 for 88 yards) to keep them honest.
So now Temple must qet over the disappointment of failing to win its first Conference title since taking the 1967 Middle Atlantic crown and prepare for MAC's Toledo. They say it won’t be difficult.
“It’s going to hurt,” said Jr. running back Jahad Thomas, held to 69 yards on 19 carries. “ =but we know we have another chance to strap on the pads and play an opponent.
“Another chance to send that group of seniors out with a win.”
One last chance to turn all those maybes into yeses.