HOUSTON >> Houston Cougars rebounded from their first defeat of the season with its biggest victory yet under coach Tom Herman.
Greg Ward, Jr. threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns to lead Houston to a 52-31 win over No. 16 Navy on Friday, sending the Cougars to the first American Athletic Conference championship game.
Houston (11-1, 7-1 American) clinched the West Division title and will host either Temple or South Florida in the championship game Dec. 5. The Cougars are also well positioned to earn a bid to a New Year's Six bowl game, likely the Fiesta Bowl, if they win the league championship.
"I'm excited for the city, and I'm excited for our university that we earned the right to host this game," said Herman, the first-year coach who has quickly turned the Cougars into championship contenders. "We'll certainly celebrate the victory tonight, but our goal was not to go 12-0; it was not to win the West. It was to win the conference, and that's something that has not been done around here in a long time."
After struggling to its lowest point total of the year last week in a 20-17 loss at Connecticut, during which Ward hardly played because of an ankle injury, the Cougars were firing on all cylinders.
Herman said it was nice to have an offense back.
Ward, who was injured two weeks ago against Memphis, was 26-of-35 passing and ran for 83 yards and another score as Houston opened up a 38-17 lead by the end of the third quarter.
"It really means a lot for the seniors for them to have another home game, but the preparations doesn't stop because we have another game next week we have to get ready for," Ward said.
Keenan Reynolds rushed for 84 yards on 19 carries and a fourth quarter touchdown and was 13 of 16 for 312 yards passing and a touchdown for Navy (9-2, 7-1). The Heisman Trophy contender scored his 83rd career touchdown to match the FBS record set by Wisconsin's Montee Ball. Reynolds also set a Navy record with his 29th career TD pass.
"Whatever works to get us down the field we're going to do," Reynolds said. "Football is both. We're able to run the ball for 300-plus yards, so the game plan was for us to throw it, and we were able to complete some big plays in the passing game."
Navy had its five-game winning streak snapped.
"Our kids battled hard and did some things, but they made a ton of plays," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "We had a hard time. The difference in the game was that we couldn't get them off the field. 16-for-19 on third downs, and they converted all of their fourth downs. We played decent on first and second down, but we could not get them off the field on third downs. It just killed us."
Houston's Brandon Wilson, who was moved from cornerback to running back this week because of injuries, ran for 111 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries.
Demarcus Ayers had eight catches for 161 yards and a touchdown and threw a 29-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter for Houston, which compiled 555 yards of offense.
"It was amazing," Ayers said of the postgame celebration, which included the fans rushing the field. "Last week was the first time ever getting the field rushed on me. To come back this week and bounce back the way we did, showed we can overcome adversity."
Navy's Jamir Tillman caught five passes for 162 yards and a touchdown. Chris Swain ran for two touchdowns for Navy.
Navy had rushed for 400 yards in back-to-back contests, but its triple-option offense was limited to 147 yards by Houston's defense. The Midshipmen tried to make up for the lack of ground production through the air.
After Reynolds was intercepted on the second play of the second half, Ward threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Linell Bonner to increase Houston's lead to 17 with 11 1-2 minutes left in the third quarter.
Following Austin Grebe's 39-yard field goal for Navy, Ayers extended Houston's lead to 38-17 with a one-handed catch and run for a 62-yard touchdown reception from Ward with 2:26 left in the third.
Ward put Houston ahead for good, spinning away from four Navy defenders and scampering for a 5-yard touchdown with five minutes left in the first half. Ty Cummings hit a 45-yard field goal to end the half to give the Cougars a 24-14 lead.