The Houston Cougars and Army West Point Black Knights are set to meet in Fort Worth for the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl on Saturday, though the two teams come in following highly contrasting finishes to the regular season. Houston (8-4, 5-3 AAC) jumped out to a 7-1 start but lost three of its last four. Those losses, including a 52-31 loss to Memphis in the regular-season finale that cost the Cougars a shot at the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, can largely be attributed to poor defense and a series of injuries to key players. Army has won eight straight games, including a 17-10 victory over archrival Navy. The win secured the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the Black Knights, and also pushed Army’s record to 10-2 overall thanks in large part to an efficient, ball-control offense and stingy defense.
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl: Houston vs. Army West Point
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 22 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Amon G. Carter Stadium (Fort Worth, Texas)
Spread: Army -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. A tale of two defenses?
Recent news surrounding each team’s defensive coordinator offers a snapshot at the story: Army DC Jay Bateman was recently hired away from Jeff Monken’s staff to become the new defensive play-caller at North Carolina while Houston head coach Major Applewhite opted to fire his defensive coordinator, Mark D'Onofrio. Comparing the two defenses statistically, Army surrendered 293.5 yards per game during the regular season, which ranked ninth nationally. Houston allowed 488.5 total yards per game, which ranked 124th. The Cougars allowed an average of 197.1 rushing yards per game, (No. 99 in FBS), and opponents averaged 291.4 yards per game through the air (tied with Oklahoma for the most in the nation). Meanwhile, the Black Knights held opponents to 108.2 rushing (12th in the nation) and 185.5 passing (20th) yards per game.
However, diving a little deeper, the two units weren’t all that different. Army surrendered 5.73 yards per play, which ranked 69th in the country, while Houston allowed 5.74 yards on average (74th). Also, the Cougars were actually significantly better as a unit in terms of pass efficiency defense, ranking 60th (128.8) — a full 20 spots higher than the Black Knights (135.7, 80th). Bateman’s unit had the benefit of Army’s methodical, ground-based offense eating up the clock as well as the number of possessions for each opponent (Army leads the nation in time of possession at 38:51 per game), while the Cougars operate in a fast-paced and prolific offense that ranked 129th nationally in time of possession (25:04). Houston also dealt with several key injuries, including to All-American Ed Oliver, who missed several games and will sit out the bowl to concentrate on the NFL draft.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with the results. Houston allowed 34.4 points per game, which ranked 107th in the country, while the Black Knights held opponents to 17.4 points on average (13th).
2. The quarterbacks
Houston has struggled to rein in opponents' passing attacks, though that isn’t likely to be a major problem against Army. The Black Knights average just 79.7 passing yards per game. Only two other FBS teams (Georgia Southern, Navy) have thrown for fewer yards. However, Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr. is one of the top rushing quarterbacks in college football. Hopkins is averaging 77 yards on the ground per game, which places him fifth among FBS quarterbacks. In 11 games, Hopkins has 847 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns while also completing 53.5 percent of his passes for 956 yards and six touchdowns with three interceptions.
Houston quarterback D’Eriq King, who has accounted for 50 total touchdowns, also is one of the most dynamic running quarterbacks in the country. Unfortunately, King is set to miss the Armed Forces Bowl as the result of a knee injury. With King on the shelf and Quinten Dormady set to transfer to Central Michigan, the Cougars are expected to start freshman Clayton Tune. Tune is 38-for-85 passing (44.7 percent) for 565 yards and seven touchdowns with two interceptions across four games this season. He was 18-for-43 (41.9 percent) for 256 yards and three TDs and a pick in his first career start against Memphis. Tune also added 12 rushing yards on 13 attempts.
3. Third down conversions
Both Army and Houston have found success on third down. The Black Knights led the country with a 56 percent success rate on third down during the regular season (and also led with an 86 percent success rate on fourth down), having moved the chains 105 times on 189 attempts. The Cougars converted 86 of 182 third-down opportunities (47.3 percent) this season, which is tied for 14th in FBS. Army succeeded in large part because of its rushing offense, which helped set up third-and-short situations regularly, while Houston found success both on the ground and through the air with its diverse, well-balanced attack.
But only one defense was consistently able to get off the field on third down. Army allowed its opponents to convert a third down into a first down on just 31 of 116 attempts — a 27 percent success rate that ranked third in the country among all FBS defenses. Conversely, the Cougars allowed 97 first downs on 217 third-down opportunities — a 45 percent success rate that ranked 110th in the nation.
Outside factors have more of an impact on bowl games than they do the rest of the season, and one team has far more of these to contend with ahead of the Armed Forces Bowl. The Houston offense has been explosive all year, but the Cougars are sure to miss D'Eriq King under center, and talented receivers Courtney Lark and Keith Corbin are both questionable to play as well. Houston also has been forced to deal with a rash of injuries along the defensive line, which has severely limited the Cougars’ ability to stop the run — a major problem given Army’s potent triple-option offense, which ranks second in the nation with an average of 296.3 rushing yards per game. And though the Cougars might have a slight home-field advantage on paper because of the game being played in Fort Worth, nearly two dozen Army football players hail from Texas. The Black Knights also come in with the momentum of a long winning streak, while Houston stumbled to the finish.
All that said, Houston is the more talented team. While Army does a terrific job neutralizing its opponent’s talent advantage (the Black Knights nearly knocked off Oklahoma earlier this year by playing keep-away from eventual Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray), the fact the Cougars have had several weeks to prepare for the triple option should help limit Army’s effectiveness. Finally, despite poor statistics on the defensive side of the football, Houston is better than the numbers would indicate. Expect the Black Knights to dominate time of possession, but for the Cougars to do just enough to pull off a minor upset.