2009 Armed Forces Bowl - Houston vs Air Force
Air Force QB Tim Jefferson & UH RB Bryce Beall
Air Force QB Tim Jefferson & UH RB Bryce Beall
Posted Dec 26, 2009

The CFN 2009 Armed Forces Bowl Preview - Air Force vs. Houston

2009 Armed Forces Bowl

Air Force (7-5) vs. Houston (10-3)

12:00 EST, ESPN, Thursday, December 31

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Team Pages and 2009 Season
Air ForceHouston 


- 2008 CFN Armed Forces Bowl Preview
- 2007 CFN Armed Forces Bowl Preview
- 2006 CFN Armed Forces Bowl Preview
National Rankings
A   H
77th Total Offense 1st
10th Total Defense 108th
54th Scoring Offense 2nd
9th Scoring Defense 88th
3rd Rushing Offense 83rd
45th Run Defense 111th
118th Passing Offense 1st
1st Passing Defense 77th
3rd Turnover Margin 15th
Position Ratings
relative to each other
A 5 highest
1 lowest
3 Quarterbacks 5
3 RBs 3.5
1 Receivers 5
5 O Line 3.5
4 D Line 2
3 Linebackers 3
5 Secondary 1.5
4 Spec Teams 3.5
5 Coaching 4
Armed Forces Bowl History
2008 Houston 34, Air Force 28
2007 California 42, Air Force 36
2006 Utah 25, Tulsa 13
2005 Kansas 42, Houston 13
2004 Cincinnati 32, Marshall 14
2003 Boise State 34, TCU 31

Air Force and Houston are back in Fort Worth for a second straight year, testing whether the tortoise or the hare will win the Armed Forces Bowl this time.

A study in contrasts, the Falcons and the Cougars will tee it up exactly a year after the Cougs prevailed 34-28. Air Force is No. 3 in the country in rushing and has one of the most underrated defenses around. Houston, on the other hand, leads the country in passing and has a feeble defense. In other words, it'll be a battle of old school vs. new school at Amon G. Carter Stadium.

For a time, it looked as if Houston might be the first Conference USA team ever to be a bona fide BCS buster. A perfect September included upsets of Oklahoma State and Texas Tech and an improbable No. 12 ranking. The high-powered passing game was humming as usual, positioning record-breaking QB Case Keenum for all kinds of national honors. However, even at a school like Houston, you've got to play defense once in a while if you're going to navigate all of the landmines of a 12-game schedule. The Cougars didn't, which is why they're playing in December instead of January.

By the first week of October, Houston's defensive flaws got exposed. UTEP RB Donald Buckram ran for 262 yards and four scores in a 58-41 rout that significantly lowered the bar for the Cougars. They'd get plucked again a month later by UCF, 37-32, yet with a little help still ended up as West Division champs. That's where the titles would stop. In the Conference USA championship game, Houston couldn't contain a balanced East Carolina offense, losing 38-32. While Keenum has thrown for more than 5,000 yards and accounted for 47 touchdowns, the Cougars won't be a complete team until it starts playing some consistent defense.

For Air Force, this will be a third consecutive trip to the Armed Forces Bowl, the Academy's longest postseason streak since the early 1990s. Head coach Troy Calhoun has helped breathe new life into the Falcons since arriving in time for the 2007 season and replacing legendary Fisher DeBerry. While the offense still has the familiar look of DeBerry's old option attacks, the defense has been a revelation under coordinator Tim DeRuyter. Although this next opponent presents an entirely different challenge, Air Force does lead the nation in pass defense, allowing just four touchdown passes in the first 11 games. Plus, it's been dynamite at creating big plays, leading the Mountain West with 28 takeaways.

Air Force enters this game with something to prove. Sure, it'll be playing in a third bowl game in-a-row, but it has sort of feasted on the softer, less competitive portion of the schedule during that time. Over the last two seasons, the Falcons are 0-8 versus Utah, TCU, BYU, and Navy, the most notable opponents on the schedule. Their most impressive win of 2009? Err, that would have to be Wyoming, which finished the regular season at 6-6. That'll change if they can upset Houston, a team that's just outside the Top 25 and spent most of the season ranked.

Players to Watch: Keenum makes the Houston offense go with his quick delivery, accurate throws, and grasp of Dana Holgorsen's offense. He does, however, get plenty of help from the supporting cast. His receiving corps is as deep as any in the country, boasting five players with at least 40 catches and three with no less than 80. Air Force will have to pay particular attention to James Cleveland, Tyron Carrier, and Patrick Edwards. Cleveland, who began his career at Iowa, has blossomed into a star in this offense, catching a team-high 101 passes for 1,182 yards and 14 touchdowns. His size and physicality along with the quickness of Carrier, Edwards, and all-purpose RB Charles Sims will keep the Falcons guessing all afternoon.

The Falcons believe they have the answers on defense to at least slow down the high-octane Houston passing game. Until facing QB Max Hall and BYU at the end of the regular season, Air Force was air-tight in pass defense, limiting big plays over the top and yards after the catch. Three members of the secondary earned All-Mountain West honors, Reggie Rembert, Anthony Wright, and Chris Thomas, who combined for 10 interceptions. The best combination of corners the program has had in ages, Rembert and Wright are a couple of terrific athletes, with the burst and change-of-direction to stay with the Cougars' quicker receivers. Houston must also contend up front with DT Ben Garland, an interior lineman with the quick first step to get in Keenum's face as he throws. He leads the Falcons with 10.5 tackles for loss, often requiring more than one blocker.

To have a chance on Thursday, Air Force must be successful at extending drives and keeping Keenum on the sidelines for as long as possible. In other words, QB Tim Jefferson needs to be at full-strength and able to play up to his expectations. He's had an inconsistent sophomore year, largely due to nagging injuries, including bruised ribs in the final regular season game. When he's on, the ground game can be devastating, pounding away at defenses with a combination of 210-pound bruiser Jared Tew and 185-pound playmaker Asher Clark. Tew had his first start in last year's game, rushing for a bowl-record 149 yards. And the Houston run defense hasn't plugged any holes since then.

Air Force will win if ... : it can control the tempo of the game and win the turnover margin. The Falcons' best defense will be a ground-control offense and a couple of drive-ending takeaways. Air Force basically has to do what it does best, pounding it on the ground at least 60 times with a combination of Tew, Clark, Jefferson, and Savier Stephens, and dominating time of possession. It's sort of elementary, but if Keenum and the Houston receivers aren't on the field, they're no threat to the Falcon D. When the Air Force running game is clicking, it has the ability to bring a defense to its knees. Why would the Cougars be any different? They rank 111th nationally against the run and have a dearth of talent on the defensive side of the ball. What happens on third down will be crucial. Air Force has been solid all year at converting, while Houston has struggled to make stops when it matters. For the Falcons, that trend must continue on New Year's Eve.
Houston will win if ... : it forces Air Force out of its comfort zone. If the Cougars can turn this game into a track meet, the Falcons are in deep trouble. They just don't have the offensive firepower to keep pace in that type of a game, ranking 118th in passing and getting held below 20 points on five different occasions. Houston has the attack to survive in comeback mode, but will really put Air Force in a corner if it can build an early lead and grow it to double-digits at any point. Keenum needs to win the game-within-the-game with the Falcon secondary, peppering it with short and intermediate throws to his wave of receivers and avoiding settling on Matt Hogan field goal attempts. Air Force has allowed more than 23 points just one time all year and wasn't competitive after the first quarter in that game. Houston needs to follow a similar blueprint in Fort Worth.

What will happen: This shapes up as a battle of wills, with both Houston and Air Force determined to impose its style of play on the other. The Cougars want to air it out, dragging the Falcons into unfamiliar territory. The Falcons want to slow things down, controlling the clock and bloodying the Cougars' nose. Advantage Cougs … barely. Much like the two times these schools met in 2008, this is going to be a close, competitive game that won't get decided until the final minutes. While Houston will have success on offense, it's not going to erupt the way it did against some of Conference USA's feebler defenses. And its defense will make sure that Air Force is never too far behind. However, didn't we get a glimpse of the Falcons' true colors in the last game with BYU, another high-powered team led by a talented veteran quarterback? They got shredded for 377 yards and five touchdown passes. Even if Keenum can't hit those numbers, he'll do enough to get the Cougars a second straight Armed Forces Bowl win.

CFN Prediction: Houston 33 … Air Force 27 ... Line: Houston -4.5

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Best Falcon Bowl Moment: One of the most decisive postseason wins in Air Force history came in the 1998 Oahu Bowl, a 45-25 demolition of the Pac-10's Washington. The Falcons were uncommonly balanced in the lopsided victory, generating 232 yards on the ground and 267 yards through the air from game MVP, QB Blane Morgan.

Best Cougar Bowl Moment: The last second upset of Nebraska in the 1980 Cotton Bowl warrants real strong consideration; however, it's the 30-21 win over unbeaten Maryland in the 1977 Cotton Bowl that has a special place in the hearts of Cougar fans. The school's first trip to a New Year's Day bowl game was the finishing touch on an unforgettable season that saw Houston stun the Southwest Conference by winning the league in its debut as a member.

Houston Bowl History (9-10)
2008 Armed Forces Houston 34, Air Force 28
2007 Texas TCU 20, Houston 13
2006 Liberty S Carolina 44, Houston 36
2005 Fort Worth Kansas 42, Houston 13
2003 Hawaii Hawaii 54, Houston 48 (3OT)
1996 Liberty Syracuse 30, Houston 17
1988 Aloha Washington State 24, Houston 22
1985 Cotton Boston College 45, Houston 28
1981 Sun Oklahoma 40, Houston 14
1980 Garden State Houston 35, Navy 0
1980 Cotton Houston 17, Nebraska 14
1979 Cotton Notre Dame 35, Houston 34
1977 Cotton Houston 30, Maryland 21
1974 Bluebonnet Houston 31, NC State 31
1973 Bluebonnet Houston 47, Tulane 7
1971 Bluebonnet Colorado 29, Houston 17
1969 Bluebonnet Houston 36, Auburn 7
1962 Tangerine Houston 49, Miami (Ohio) 21
1952 Salad Houston 26, Dayton 21
Air Force Bowl History (8-9-1)
2008 Armed Forces Houston 34, Air Force 28
2007 Armed Forces Cal 42, Air Force 36
2002 San Fran. Virginia Tech 20, Air Force 13
2000 Silicon Valley Air Force 37, Fresno State 34
1998 Oahu Air Force 45, Washington 25
1997 Las Vegas Oregon 41, Air Force 13
1995 Copper Texas Tech 55, Air Force 41
1992 Liberty Mississippi 13, Air Force 0
1991 Liberty Air Force 38, Mississippi St. 15
1990 Liberty Air Force 23, Ohio St. 11
1989 Liberty Mississippi 42, Air Force 29
1987 Freedom Arizona St. 33, Air Force 28
1985 Bluebonnet Air Force 24, Texas 16
1984 Indep. Air Force 23, Virginia Tech 7
1983 Indep. Air Force 9, Mississippi 3
1982 Hall of Fame Air Force 36, Vanderbilt 28
1971 Sugar Tennessee 34, Air Force 13
1963 Gator North Carolina 35, Air Force 0
1959 Cotton Air Force 0, TCU 0