The University of Houston, despite setbacks in the way of a natural disaster and devastating injuries, somehow found the wherewithal to finish 7-5, one win away from a second appearance in three years in the C-USA Championship Game, and received a fourth consecutive bowl bid, this year to the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl at Amon Carter Stadium in Fort Worth on January 31st. The game starts at 11 AM. The Cougars played in the same bowl three years ago, and they are facing an opponent they met earlier this season in the Air Force Falcons (8-4) of the Mountain West Conference. That game was played as Hurricane Ike was devouring the Gulf Coast, so the Coogs were rushed to Dallas a couple of days before where they ended up playing AFA at 10 in the morning at Ford Stadium. UH got off to a slow start but came roaring back, only to fall 31-28. As the AP story of the game reported, "Air Force's offense couldn't have been better suited to play in the wind and rain brought by the edge of Hurricane Ike." Still, the game could have gone either way, and the oddsmakers think the rematch could as well; UH is favored by about the same margin the Falcons won the last meeting.
But despite a rematch and the Cougars' return to Fort Worth, this game has more contrasts than similarities. Air Force, somewhat ironically, relies on its ground attack; in fact, AFA only threw seven passes against UH in September, and completed nary a one. UH, on the other hand, despite the wind and rain, passed 57 times. So the game should be a classic battle of the run versus the pass. And the teams that played three months ago have changed a good deal from the ones that will play next week. UH has nine different starters in the lineup, including impressive freshman such as RB Bryce Beall and WR Tyron Carrier, neither of whom started the first few games of the season, while Air Force has a new quarterback, Tim Jefferson, who was named the MWC Freshman of the Year. Beall and Carrier give the Cougars big-play ability, while Jefferson is an exceptional athlete who can make something out of nothing, not unlike UH quarterback Case Keenum, who led the nation in total offense.
Air Force runs the triple-option and does so very well. They are extremely disciplined, and when the option is executed well, stopping it is a huge challenge for defenses. The Falcons aren't that big up front. Most of their linemen are in the 270 range. Guard Nick Thomas is the behemoth at 285 and also the best of the group. But they zone block well, and led the way to a season average of 269 yards rushing per contest, which was the fifth best mark in the nation. Air Force splits the carries between several backs. Fullback Todd Newell leads the team with 594 yards, but Asher Clark and Kyle Lumpkin are within 150 yards of him, and all three have over 100 carries. Jefferson gained 373 yards, but he may have been the leading rusher had he been the starter from the first game. He's learned to make the right reads on the option, and he's probably AFA's best athlete. The receptions are divvied up as well; all four leading receivers have between 14 and 11 grabs. That sounds pretty skimpy, but the averages per catch are more eye-catching: 23, 21, 16, and 14. Kyle Halderman is especially dangerous. Once defenses focus all their efforts on stopping the option, the Falcons will try to catch them napping and go deep.
But while Air Force was fifth nationally in rushing, UH was first nationally in total offense. The Cougars are led by First-Team All-Conference USA quarterback Case Keenum, who also finished first nationally in total offense by an astounding 26 yards. Keenum has developed into a skilled passer, and he's also a threat to run on occasion. He has that rare knack for making the seemingly impossible possible on the field. The leading receiver is Mark Hafner, one of the best tight ends in the country; he also plays big slot. Slot receiver Tyron Carrier will be the fastest and maybe most exciting player on the field. Bryce Beall made Second Team Freshman All-American. He's an all-around back with speed and some power, and he catches the ball well out of the backfield. The screen to Beall has become a staple of the Cougars' offense. The offensive line has been hampered if not decimated by injuries. Arguably the Coogs' best, Sir Vincent Rogers, was lost fairly early in the year, and then his backup went down as well. Sebastian Vollmer, a first-team all-conference selection, stands out, and not only because he's 6-8. Perhaps the biggest key will be how well the offensive line protects Keenum. The injuries hindered their ability to do so later in the season.
Air Force is no slouch on defense, surrendering only 335 yards and 21 points per game, though BYU and TCU scored a combined 82 points against the Academy in its last two games. The strength of the defense, which runs a base 3-4, is the line. Jake Paulson is a talented end, who has 8.5 sacks on the year. Senior nose guard Jared Marvin isn't that big, but he's quick and tough against the run. Some fall off was expected with the back seven with newcomers at linebacker and defensive back, but they've played reasonably well. Air Force allows less than 200 yards passing per game. Strong safety Chris Thomas is a good one. Still, a prolific offense can put up numbers against the Falcons, who have only played two first-rate offenses in UH and BYU. Houston, despite the foul conditions, finished with 534 yards and BYU finished with 480. So obviously AFA isn't invincible.
Houston's defense has struggled all year, and with a precision offense like Air Force, the Cougars have a major challenge facing them. In some respects, UH is catching a break playing a running team. UH has fared better against the run than the pass, but problems at linebacker and cornerback could spell trouble stopping AFA's well-oiled attack. Defensive tackle Cody Pree is a force inside, who could disrupt the Falcons' offense, and stopping the dive is the first order of business. C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Phillip Hunt and his opposite number, Tate Stewart, will have to help prevent Jefferson from turning it up field. The linebackers and corners must keep containment and tackle well. If they don't, AFA could march up and down the field. And the Cougars can‘t disregard the pass. Although Air Force only averages 10 passes a game, they usually throw at the most opportune times and hit big plays.
Two special team stars to keep an eye on are Air Force kicker Ryan Harrison and Houston punter Chase Turner. Harrison was 22 of 25, perfect inside the 40, and six of eight outside the forty. Turner averaged 46 yards per punt and had a long of 71 yards. Among return men, Houston's Tyron Carrier brought a kickoff back 93 yards for a touchdown and is a threat each time he touches the ball.
The Armed Forces Bowl should be one of the season's best. Look for offensive fireworks, one of those games that ought to keep fans at Amon Carter Stadium as well as those in front of TVs around the country on the edge of their seats. UH has to roll up the yards and points, and it wouldn't hurt to run some clock to give the defense some rest. And while no one expects the Cougars to stuff the option, they must slow it down and get a few stops and maybe even a turnover or two. The key for Air Force will be long drives that result in points and for their defense to get some sacks or at least enough pressure to hurry Keenum into a mistake or two. Even though these teams have already played, it was more like an exhibition than a real game. The Armed Forces is a great matchup of two very different teams, one that could rate as one of the most exciting of the bowl season.