By John Van Winkle
Academy Public Affairs
FORT WORTH, Texas (AFNS) – Six interceptions powered the Air Force Academy to a 47-20 win over the University of Houston Cougars in the Armed Forces Bowl here Dec. 31.
This was the third time the Air Force Academy and University of Houston met on the gridiron in two years. The Academy defeated the Cougars 31-28 during the 2008 regular season, and Houston repaid the Falcons by handing them a 34-28 loss during the 2008 Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.
The 2009 Armed Forces Bowl was Air Force’s third trip to the bowl game in as many years, and turned out to be a rematch for the Falcons and Cougars, and pitted Air Force’s No. 1-ranked passing defense against Houston’s No. 1-ranked passing offense. And it was the defense that won this battle, ending six Houston drives with interceptions and limiting the Cougar offense to only four of 10 third-down conversions.
“We were outplayed today by Air Force,” said Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that . They had the number one pass defense in the country and showed it today. We were a little off, frankly in all areas.
“You can’t expect to win any time when you turn the ball over like we did,” he said. “This loss was turnover-related and from not getting off the field on third down. We didn’t make the plays on third down and I’ll have to look at the tape to evaluate the other mistakes. Air Force took advantage of some of our errors and created opportunities on their own.”
The Falcons racked up two scores on their first two possessions, with their run-heavy triple-option attack, and larger-than average number of passes.
On their opening possession, an option left and two carries by fullback Jared Tew made the Houston defense tighten up on the run. That allowed Falcon quarterback Tim Jefferson to hit two consecutive passes to wide receiver Kevin Fogler and then tailback Asher Clark and move the ball to the Houston 36-yard line. An option and good blocking on the next play sprung Clark free to race into the end zone for the score left to Clark. Falcon place kicker Erik Soderberg added the extra point to put Air Force up 7-0.
When Houston first took the ball, it was the start matchup of the nation’s number one passing defense and passing offense. On this possession, it was the Air Force’s top-ranked passing defense that gained the upper hand on a pass deflection which was intercepted by Falcon defensive back Anthony Wright. His grab make it Falcon football at their 37-yard-line.
The Falcons kept the momentum by moving the ball to the Houston 43-yard line, before Jefferson found wide receiver Kevin Fogler relatively open on a deep rout and hit him for a 37-yard gain, moving the sticks to the Cougar 6-yard line. Tew hit the hole on the next play off the right side for the Falcon’s second touchdown. A Soderberg extra point upped the Falcons’ lead to 14-0.
The teams traded turnovers on their next possessions. Houston’s into chance with the ball was a more methodical drive which gained a foothold in Falcon territory before the defense left the Cougars with a fourth-and two at the Falcon 43-yard-line. The Cougars went for it, and quarterback Case Keenum did a pooch-punt to play the field-position game with the Falcons, as the ball was downed at the Falcon 3-yard-line. Three runs gave the Falcons enough room to safely punt, and Houston had a fresh set of downs at the Falcon 44 yard line.
The pass-happy Cougars moved the ball to the Air Force 16-yard line before facing a fourth down. Houston’s coaches chose a field goal attempt to narrow their 14-point deficit. Houston placekicker Matt Hogan made the kick to give the Cougars their first score, 14-3.
The Falcons answered with another long drive, capped off when Jefferson optioned to Clark, and the tailback ran right and crossed the goal line on the right sideline for the Falcon’s third TD. Another Soderberg extra point put the Falcons up 21-3.
Houston answered with a 33-yard field goal by Hogan, to narrow the score to 21-6.
Knowing the potency of Houston’s high-scoring offense, Falcons head football coach Troy Calhoun was going to make use of every scoring opportunity. So with more than two minutes left on the clock, he went deep into his play-calling archives and dusted off the two-minute drill. Air Force started working the sidelines, airing out the ball and putting time-outs to use, to keep the clock alive and move the ball from the Falcon 34-yard line into Houston territory.
Then Jefferson found his favorite wide receiver, Fogler, down the right sideline and hit him for a 34-yard gain to set up a first-and-goal at the Houston 9-yard-line. An option right and a timeout gave the blue-suiters a second and five with 24 seconds left in the half. Wide receiver Jonathan Warzeka was called on to run, and gained three yards to make it third and goal from the 2 yard line. The third-down play was a disaster when Jefferson rolled out to pass and slipped.
“We tried to call a bootleg to try to not get caught on the field of play and maybe score,” said Coach Calhoun.
While the play was a bust, the team’s preparation did hit paydirt. Facing a fourth down with the clock ticking and zero timeouts left before halftime, the field goal team rushed on the field to get Soderberg in place to hit the field goal and put the Falcons up 24-6 going into halftime.
Houston justified Coach Calhoun’s concerns, and Cougar kick returner Tyron Carrier returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. It was his fourth of the season, and with the extra point, made it Air Force 24, Houston 13.
And Air Force responded accordingly. Warzeka took the kickoff at the Falcon goal line and took it the distance, for the Falcons’ first kickoff return for a touchdown since the now-retired Lt. Col. Scott Thomas did it against Utah in 1985. That was 297 games ago, and the longest streak of going without a kickoff return for a TD in the country.
The back-to-back kickoff returns for touchdowns at the Armed Forces bowl was the first time it’s ever happened in a bowl game and only the third time in NCAA history that it had ever happened. Aside from the historical standpoint, the extra point made it Air Force 31, Houston 13.
Houston got its offense back on track, when quarterback Case Keenum hit wide receiver Patrick Edwards for a 10-yard touchdown pass to narrow the scoring margin to Air Force 31, Houston 20. The Falcons followed up with another long drive and a Soderberg field goal, to make it 34-20.
The Falcons defense snuffed out Houston’s next drive to take over possession at their 25-yard line. The Falcons drove to sneezing distance of the Houston goal line, and Jefferson stretched out on the keeper to break the plane, with his senior offensive line pushing ahead of him and Warzeka adding a push from behind. The score put the Falcons up 40-20, and Soderberg’s kick made it Air Force 41, Houston 20.
A pair of interceptions by Falcon defensive backs shut down Houston’s next two scoring attempts, while the Falcons continued to grind away at the clock. Air Force added a touchdown on a Jared Tew run added another six points to give the Falcons a 47-20 victory in front of a bowl-record 41,414 fans.
“I want to thank the Air Force fans for the great turnout and show of support,” said Coach Calhoun. “That was a great win, baby!”
“We are giving the MVP trophy to Asher Clark, but this could go to the entire team. The ultimate team place is Air Force football. The best stuff these guys will ever do is ahead of them in service to their country. This was just a terrific all-around effort across the board. These guys fought hard and played well. The third time here was a charm!”
For the coaches and players, the joy of a hard-won bowl game win on New Year’s Eve will soon give way to preparation for the 2010 football season.
“We have to start from scratch, with a new team and new year. The work doesn’t stop,” said Coach Calhoun. “I leave Dec. 31, and hit the country to start recruiting.”
Several other coaches will also be hitting the road, looking for players who fit the athletic, academic and character mold of becoming a Air Force Academy cadet-athlete.
Fifteen of the cadet-athletes who played in the bowl game are bound for graduation. As for the rest, the weight rooms await, as their offseason conditioning program started Monday.