Teams in similar positions will cross paths when Houston and Pittsburgh meet up in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas. Both the Cougars (7-5) and Panthers (6-6) are wrapping up their seasons with interim head coaches, as Houston’s Tony Levine was fired on Dec. 8 and Pittsburgh’s Paul Chryst left two weeks ago for Wisconsin, his alma mater.
Instead, defensive coordinator David Gibbs will lead the Cougars, while Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph will be calling the shots on the other sideline. Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has already been hired as Pitt’s next head coach, while Houston has tabbed Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman.
Even though Levine went 21-17 in three seasons and led Houston to back-to-back bowl games, it wasn’t enough to keep his job. The Cougars have one of the stingier defenses in the nation, but consecutive 5-3 showings in the American Athletic Conference apparently didn’t impress the powers that be.
It’s up to Gibbs to try and match last’s season eight wins with a victory over Pittsburgh. Houston is making its 22nd bowl appearance overall and fourth in the Armed Forces Bowl (formerly the Fort Worth Bowl). The Cougars are 1-2 in this game, which is played at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, about four hours away from Houston. They last appeared in this bowl game in 2009, when they lost 47-20 to Air Force. The Cougars also lost their most recent postseason game – 41-24 to Vanderbilt in the BBVA Compass Bowl a year ago.
Chryst departed Pittsburgh after going 19-19 in three seasons, including a 7-9 conference record in the Panthers’ first two seasons in the ACC. Pittsburgh is playing in its seventh straight bowl game. The Panthers have gone 3-3 during this span, including last season’s 30-27 victory over Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
These two schools have only played each other twice previously, with the last meeting occurring nearly two decades ago. Each has won on the other’s home field – Houston in 1996 and Pittsburgh in ’97.
Houston vs. Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 2 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Pittsburgh -3
Houston’s Key to Victory: Force the Issue
More known for producing prolific quarterbacks like 1989 Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware, David Klingler, Case Keenum and others, this Cougars team has gotten the job done on defense. Houston enters this game ranked 19th in total defense (334.6 ypg) and tied for 10th in scoring defense (19.5 ppg). It figures to be tested on the ground by ACC Player of the Year James Conner and the nation’s 15th-ranked rushing attack, but the Cougars have fared well in that department (136.3 ypg allowed, 32nd) too. The key for Houston’s defense could be forcing Pittsburgh to make mistakes. The Cougars are tied for seventh in takeaways with 30, including 19 interceptions. If Conner has any weakness, it’s a tendency to lose his grip on the football, so you can bet that Houston defenders will be looking to exploit that when they get their hands on him. The Cougars have turned three of these takeaways into touchdowns, but sometimes the change in possession is effective in that it gives the ball back to the offense. The Panthers’ defense has given up its share of yards and points, so mistakes forced and then capitalized on by Houston could go a long ways towards making interim head coach David Gibbs’ debut a successful one.
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Conner-Boyd Combo
The Panthers have one of the nation’s most dangerous duos in running back James Conner and wide receiver Tyler Boyd, both sophomores. Conner was named the ACC’s Player of the Year after rushing for 1,675 yards (fifth nationally) and a school-record 24 touchdowns (tied for third). Boyd went over 1,000 yards receiving for the second straight season (1,149, second in ACC), and chipped in eight touchdowns. Together this duo has been responsible for 57 percent of Pittsburgh’s total offense (2,957 of 5,211 yards) and two-thirds of its total touchdowns (32 of 48). They are clearly the two biggest weapons on the Panthers’ roster and will be hard to stop even with all of the attention they will draw from Houston’s stout defense. Fortunately for Pittsburgh fans, the interim head coach is offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph. If there’s anyone who knows how important it is to get the ball to Conner and Boyd, it’s him.
Both Houston and Pittsburgh are facing similar circumstances with interim head coaches calling the shots. It just so happens that the two fill-ins have plenty of familiarity with their team’s strongest side of the ball. So in this classic matchup of Houston’s defense vs. Pittsburgh’s offense, which team has the advantage? The Panthers boast two of the nation’s best young playmakers in ACC Player of the Year James Conner and electric wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Even if the Cougars can slow down Conner, which is easier said than done, I think the combination of him and Boyd will be tough for Houston’s offense to overcome. Look for Pittsburgh to end the Paul Chryst era and usher in Pat Narduzzi on a winning note.