Air Force and Houston Matchup
Overview: The Air Force Falcons (8-4) are heading back to Fort Worth for their second Armed Forces bowl in as many years and a rematch with the Houston Cougars (7-5). In their first match-up on September 13th, the game was played at SMU due to Hurricane Ike. Air Force rolled up 380 rushing yards on the Cougar defense and built a 31-7 lead before Houston rallied late behind the strong arm and running ability of QB Case Keenum. Houston scored 21 unanswered points before falling 31-28. In the Armed Forces Bowl, the odds makers seem to think the Cougars should pick up where they left off and made the Cougars three point favorites despite their neutral field loss. Furthermore, Air Force struggled down the final stretch of the regular season against perennial league powers BYU and TCU. Entering the BYU game, Air Force boasted the #10 ranked pass defense, but after facing BYU's Max Hall and TCU's Andy Dalton, the pass defense ranking fell to #46. Air Force's secondary is going to have to find itself again following the pair of setbacks if they are going to have a chance against Keenum and Houston's #1 ranked offense that is averaging 575 yards a game. Despite the fact that this bowl game is a regular season rematch, both teams still need to look at plenty of film. Tim DeRuyter and the Air Force defense need to find a way to dial up pressure on Keenum to give their young secondary a chance. Houston will have to deal with new faces in the Air Force backfield that bring considerably more speed to the Air Force offense.
When Air Force has the ball: Air Force is now led offensively by Mountain West Freshman of the Year Tim Jefferson at QB and freshman tailback Asher Clark. Tim Jefferson took the starting job from senior Shea Smith after Smith left the game against Navy with flu like symptoms. Jefferson went 5-2 as a starter and has shown big play ability with his legs and his arm. Jefferson boasts a very solid 142.9 QB rating and has found reliable targets in TE Travis Dekker and receivers Kyle Halderman and Josh Cousins. Clearly, Houston's 102nd ranked defense will face a considerably more dynamic Air Force offense then the team that defeated them in September without completing a pass. Clark and FB Todd Newell should see the bulk of the carries for the Falcons . The backfield tandem have each averaged over four ypc on the season. Houston will rely on First team Conference USA defensive end Philip Hunt to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and disrupt the Falcon's outside running game. Second team Conference USA strong safety Kenneth Fontenette leads a secondary that his been susceptible to the big play this year. Their play must improve in one on one match-ups if the Houston defense is going to be able to stack up against the run. It seems reasonable to assume that Air Force should be able to get into the end zone against the Cougar's defense which has allowed over 31 ppg on the season.
When Houston has the ball: Houston wins or loses with Keenum's passing game. Keenum's leading receiver is TE Mark Hafner. Hafner is a fellow second team Conference USA member and has caught 85 balls on the season. In the first game against the Falcons, Hafner did the bulk of the damage for Houston, catching seven balls for 64 yards and three scores. Hafner will be matched up against second team MWC strong safety Chris Thomas. Thomas is arguably the most talented player on the defensive side of the ball for the Falcons, but he has struggled in pass coverage late in the season against the conference's top tight ends. Tyron Carrier, a redshirt freshman wide receiver, was the teams second leading receiver on the year and had 91 yards against the Falcons in their first match-up. Carrier, another second team Conference USA member, will be matched up against Reggie Rembert. This is an intriguing match-up as both players stand only 5'7'' inches tall. If Rembert can win the one on one battle against Carrier, it will free-up another defender to help cover Hafner. Thus, Rembert's duel against Carrier could play very heavily into the outcome of the game. Finally, the Falcons will need to be able to get pressure on Keenum while still leaving enough players in pass coverage to defend against the aerial attack. First team MWC selection Jake Paulson leads a defensive line that could be considered one of the top units in the country despite their relatively small size. Air Force has used creative blitz packages all year to neutralize their disadvantage in size and get to opposing QBs. In the first match-up against Houston, Keenum was sacked three times, but also managed to hurt the Falcons with his running ability. The Falcon's defensive line never lacks aggressiveness, but they must also play smart assignment football in order to minimize Keenum's scrambling opportunities.
Prediction: Should be plenty of points scored in this one. In the end, the Falcons ground ‘em out style of offense earns them one extra possession and a bowl victory. Air Force 38 Houston 31
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