Houston and Air Force will face each other on a neutral field for the second time this season when they meet at Amon G. Carter Stadium for the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.
Air Force won the initial meeting 31-28 when the September 13 game was moved from Houston to SMU’s Ford Stadium due to Hurricane Ike. The Falcons rushed for 380 yards in jumping to a 31-7 lead in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. Houston sophomore quarterback Case Keenum passed for three touchdowns in the final 20 minutes of the contest as the second-year starter from Abilene, Texas, accounted for all four scores and 437 total yards against Air Force (75 rushing and 362 passing).
“We are excited about our match up as Houston brings the nation’s No. 2-ranked passing offense to Amon G. Carter Stadium while the Air Force Academy has ranked among the country’s best rushing teams the past 22 seasons,” said Tom Starr, the Executive Director of the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. “We expect a lot of offense, but it appears the roles are reversed for this game with Houston a quick-striking offense while Air Force features a ground assault. It should be a high-scoring game.”
For the second straight year, the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl will feature a first year mentor as Kevin Sumlin replaced Art Briles as the 12th head coach in Houston history and the first African-American to lead the Cougar program. Sumlin was an assistant coach at Texas A&M (2001-2002) and Oklahoma (2003-2007) the previous seven seasons.
With a 7-5 record, Houston will be playing in its fifth bowl game in the last six seasons. Defeating both teams that competed in the 2008 Conference USA title game, the Cougars posted a 6-2 league mark. Houston opened C-USA play with a 41-24 win at East Carolina as Keenum passed for 401 yards and three touchdowns. In a 70-30 victory over Tulsa, Keenum passed for 402 yards and six touchdowns while rushing for one score against the Golden Hurricane.
Keenum out-performed Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell in 2008 to lead the nation in passing yardage as the Cougar connected on 375-of-554 passes for 4,993 yards and 43 touchdowns. Harrell completed more passes (406), but had only 4,747 passing yards and 41 touchdown passes. Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford (4,464 yards, 48 TD's) and Texas’s Colt McCoy (4,021 yards, 32 TD's) trailed Keenum in passing yards this season.
With an 8-4 record, Air Force has now posted back-to-back winning records for the first-time since the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Three of the Falcon losses in 2008 were to schools (Utah, TCU and BYU) ranked among the top 25 teams on the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) standings. The fourth setback was to bowl bound Navy.
The Air Force resurgence is led by Coach Troy Calhoun, who replaced Fisher DeBerry as only the sixth coach in the 53-season history of Air Force football. A 1989 graduate of the Academy, Calhoun has now compiled a 17-8 record at Air Force in one-plus seasons as he has now matched DeBerry in leading the Falcons to bowl games in their first two seasons.
Air Force currently has the sixth-best rushing attack in the country (268.9) to rank among the top 10 for the 22nd-straight season. The Falcons won the national rushing title in 2002 (307.8) when Air Force played in their last post-season game prior to competing in the 2007 Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.
While Air Force has retooled its offensive look after losing quarterback Shaun Carney and receiver Chad Hall, the Falcons still have one of the best place-kickers in the national in Ryan Harrison. A senior from Keller, Texas, Harrison converted on 22 of 25 field goals this season while topping the 100-point scoring mark for the second straight season.
With two game-winning field goals to his credit (TCU 2007 and UNLV 2008), Harrison has converted on 41 of 52 field goal attempts the past two seasons. With only one missed extra point in 79 tries, Harrison also made kicks of 29 and 47 yards at the 2007 Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.
Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson became just the fourth freshman starting quarterback in Air Force history when he moved into the lineup for the San Diego State game in mid October. In become the Mountain West’s freshman of the year, Jefferson led the Falcons to a 5-2 record. He rushed for 373 yards and two touchdowns while completing 37 of 66 passes for 557 yards with five touchdowns this season.
The Air Force will be competing in their 19th bowl since the start of their intercollegiate football program in 1956. The Falcons first-ever bowl appearance was following the 1958 season when Air Force and TCU played to a 0-0 tie in the 1959 Cotton Bowl.
After losing to Cal in the 2007 Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, the Falcons have an 8-9-1 postseason record. Three of the Air Force’s 18 bowl games have been played in the state of Texas. The Falcons’ 24-16 win over Texas in the 1965 New Year’s Eve Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston was sandwiched between the 1959 appearance in Dallas and last year’s game at Amon G. Carter Stadium.
Like Air Force, Houston will be competing in their 19th bowl since the start of their intercollegiate football program in 1946. Despite losing their last eight bowl appearances, the Cougars have a 7-10-1 bowl record. Eleven of the Cougar’s bowl games have been in Texas, including a 2007 appearance at the Texas Bowl where Houston dropped a 20-13 decision to TCU.
Both Air Force (30-10) and Houston (32-15) schools have had success against teams from Conference USA and the Mountain West, respectively. In bowl games between the two conferences, Conference USA leads 6-5 with the last meeting being the 2007 Houston-TCU Texas Bowl contest.