HOUSTON - Defending against an accomplished dual-threat quarterback has been Temple's kryptonite all season, and the latest dose was served up by a 5-foot-11, 185-pound dynamo from Houston.
Greg Ward Jr. torched the Owls on the ground, and did enough to keep them off-balance with the pass, as Houston beat Temple, 24-13, in Saturday's inaugural American Athletic Conference championship game at TDECU Stadium.
Temple (10-3) will learn its bowl assignment on Sunday, with the Dec. 22 Boca Raton Bowl a potential destination. Houston (12-1) will either compete in the Peach or Fiesta Bowl, a desired prize for winning the championship game.
And the Cougars can certainly thank their quarterback, who rushed for 148 yards and two scores on 17 carries and completed 11 of 21 passes for 88 yards. To nobody's surprise, Ward was named the game's most outstanding player.
Houston can also thank cornerback William Jackson III, the defensive equivalent of Ward, who broke up seven Temple passes.
"I just have a lot of respect for Greg Ward Jr., I thought he was the difference tonight," Temple coach Matt Rhule said. "We played really good defense at times, but he was just a difference-maker, which he had been all year."
The culprit of all three Temple losses was a dual-threat quarterback. Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer and South Florida's Quinton Flowers sliced and diced the Temple defense earlier this year.
What made Ward so frustrating to contain was that on several plays he made a lot of something out of seemingly nothing, spinning out of one troubled situation after another.
"He just keeps plays alive with his feet," said Temple linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who, along with safety Will Hayes, had a team-high eight tackles.
Temple quarterback P.J. Walker was intercepted on the game's first drive, and it set up the Cougars' opening touchdown.
Facing pressure from AAC tackling leader Elandon Roberts, Walker threw an off-balanced floater that was intercepted by Tyus Bowser and returned 8 yards to the Owls' 36.
"I thought I could throw it over him," said Walker, who completed 26 of 44 passes for 287 yards, one TD, and one interception. "Once he saw the ball in the air he was able to make a play on it."
That turnover led to Javin Webb's 1-yard touchdown run.
On Temple's second drive, Robby Anderson, after a 14-yard reception, was leveled by Roberts and ball hawk safety Trevon Steward recorded his ninth career fumble recovery on the Cougars' 9-yard-line.
With 5 minutes, 32 seconds left in the second quarter, Ward made it 17-0 on his ninth run this season of 30 yards or more. Initially he looked trapped inside, but Ward broke out and scored on a 47-yard run.
"I was able to make a play on the edge, and the outside receivers gave me a block so I was able to run," Ward said.
As much as Ward was able to run, Temple couldn't sustain the ground game for long stretches. The Owls rushed for 98 yards, averaging 3.6 per carry.
Ward's 10-yard scoring run with 6:40 left in the third quarter boosted the lead to 24-3. It was his 19th rushing touchdown.
Temple scored 10 unanswered points on Anderson's 13-yard scoring reception and a 39-yard Austin Jones 39-yard field goal with 11:29 left.
The Owls, who were 1 for 4 on fourth-down conversions, were stopped on fourth down on their final two drives.
Temple failed to force a turnover, but the inability to contain Ward, a problem virtually every other AAC team has faced, was too big of an obstacle to overcome.