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Houston (7-5) vs. Air Force (8-4)



Wednesday, December 31st, 12:00 p.m. (et)

The Sports Network

By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor

GAME NOTES: With all the attention in the Mountain West Conference going to the undefeated and BCS-crashing Utah Utes, the Air Force Falcons will have to work a little bit harder to garner attention for their Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl against the Houston Cougars on New Year's Eve at Carter Stadium in Fort Worth.

The Falcons were one of five teams from the MWC to make it to the postseason as they finished fourth in the league standings with a record of 5-3. After opening the 2008 campaign with three straight wins, Troy Calhoun's group dropped back-to-back games before stringing together another five consecutive triumphs. However, the Falcons had to close out the regular season against BYU and TCU, games that resulted in setbacks, so at this point the team is trying to snap a two-game slide.

As for the Cougars, representatives from Conference USA, they took part in some of the wildest games of the season, twice giving up 56 points (Rice and Oklahoma State) and also scoring 70 points (Tulsa). First-year head coach Kevin Sumlin managed to get the Cougars to third place in the West Division of the standings in Conference USA with a record of 6-2, but had the team not lost to the Owls in the finale then the postseason picture could have been entirely different.

Houston is playing in the postseason for the 19th time, dating back to the 1952 Salad Bowl when they program defeated Dayton (26-21). More recently the squad has hit a huge dry spell, losing eight straight bowl games since blanking Navy in the 1980 Garden Bowl. In the postseason for the fourth straight year, the Cougars bowed to TCU in last year's Texas Bowl by a final of 20-13, pushing the team to 7-10-1 in the postseason overall.

As for the Falcons, they played in this very same bowl last year against California and were defeated by a score of 42-36. The loss was the second in a row for the Falcons in the postseason, dropping the team below .500 in the process at 8-9-1.

These teams actually met earlier this season for the first time ever, with the Falcons picking up a 31-28 victory over Houston back on September 13. Due to the threat of Hurricane Ike the contest was moved to Ford Stadium in Dallas.

The offense for the Cougars begins with the talented Case Keenum at the quarterback position. The sophomore, who was named the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year, threw for at least 300 yards in every outing and led the nation in total offense with nearly 5,000 yards, ranking second with 4,768 yards through the air and 43 touchdown passes. Last year's Conference USA Freshman of the Year, Keenum has converted two-thirds of his pass attempts for 397.3 ypg, making it easy to see how the team ranks second in the country in passing and is first in overall offense with an astounding (575.1 ypg). The team has none players that have logged no less than 237 yards receiving, with Tyron Carrier registering a team-best 977 yards on 75 receptions, leading to nine scores. Mark Hafner paced the group with his 85 grabs for 892, resulting in a team-best 11 touchdowns.

"It has been a fun season," Hafner has said of the team's success. "With running a new system and getting new coaches, I think it benefited everyone as a player."

The Cougars are much more than just a pass-happy bunch, they also have Bryce Beall available coming out of the backfield and his change of pace has resulted in 1,112 yards and 12 touchdowns, with an average of almost six and a half yards per attempt. For his effort Beall was named the Conference USA Freshman of the Year.

As if having the top offensive player and the best first-year player in the conference were not enough, the Cougars also spawned the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year as well in defensive end Phillip Hunt. The talented senior led the conference and was tied for fourth nationally with an average of one sack per game. Hunt also generated 1.38 tackles for loss per outing, which placed him third in the league and tied for 20th nationally as well. A starter in all 12 games this season, Hunt recorded 50 total stops and was first on the squad with three forced fumbles. Except for Tate Stewart, who posted five sacks and was the team leader with two recovered fumbles, no one else on the squad had more than one and a half sacks this season for the Cougars, leaving the team fourth in the league and tied for 65th in the country. Because the offense for the Cougars scored early and often, the defense for the program was sent back onto the field without much time to rest, which may be why the group ranked eighth in the league and 102nd in the nation with 418.6 ypg allowed. The pass defense surrendered 249.1 ypg and had a rating of just 139.15 (98th), but it could have been a lot worse had it not been for Loyce Means and Brandon Brinkley who both recorded four interceptions.

"Each day he is getting better," coach Sumlin has said of Means this season. "He is aggressive and he is making some plays...We keep challenging him and he continues to rise to the occasion."

The last several years have seen the Falcons rank among the best in the nation in running the ball. This season the team dropped off the pace a bit to fifth place. Posting 268.9 ypg on the ground is nothing to be ashamed of, especially since coach Calhoun has tried to integrate some passing into the equation for the first time in a long time. Despite averaging a mere 79.9 ypg through the air to rank 117th in the country this season, the Falcons still had their moments when they were able to trip up defenses, thanks to the play of Tim Jefferson who appeared in 10 games and managed to complete 56.1 percent of his 66 throws for five touchdowns and just three interceptions. Those may sound like paltry numbers, but when it comes to the Falcons, anything that happens above the ground is a bonus these days and it was enough to earn Jefferson Freshman of the Year honors in the MWC. But again, the meat and potatoes of this ground is running the ball from the opening offensive play. The team had as many as eight players with at least 179 yards on the ground in 2008, led by Todd Newell who generated 594 yards and scored four times. Asher Clark had some big moments as well with his 531 yards and five TDs, while former starting quarterback Shea Smith logged a team-best six rushing TDs for the Falcons before Jefferson took control of the offense.

Ranked first in the nation in sacks allowed with just three all season, the Falcons did pretty well for themselves in that department from a defensive standpoint as well, recording 2.75 sacks per game to rank second in the MWC and 13th in the nation this season. Of his 51 tackles this season, Jake Paulson made 14 of them behind the line of scrimmage and was also first on the team with eight and a half sacks, one of which resulted in a safety for the group. For his efforts, Paulson was named First-Team All-MWC, the first defensive lineman at the academy to ever earn such honors. Ken Lamendola was the top tackler overall for the academy with 112 stops in 12 games, giving him an average of 9.33 tackler per outing, placing him second in the conference and 20th in the country in that department. The unit tried to set a tone in the first two games of the campaign against Southern Utah and Wyoming with a total of just 10 points allowed, but in the last two games the squad surrendered a total of 82 points to BYU and TCU, elevating their points allowed on the season to 21.3 ppg, which was third in the league and 34th in the country. Also working in the team's favor was turnover margin as the Falcons ranked second in the conference and 12th nationally with a +1.0 in miscues during the 2008 regular season.

"They are a completely different team than they were when we played them last," said coach Calhoun of the Houston Cougars when he found out the teams would be meeting for the second time this season. "They are an explosive team. But I think we are a different team to a degree too."

Unfortunately, the differences between the squads at this point have to favor the all-out attack style of the Cougars, a program that could easily win by a couple of touchdowns.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Houston 38, Air Force 24

12/28 03:38:58 ET


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