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Armed Forces Bowl: Can Air Force Shut Down Houston's Aerial Attack?

PROVO, UT - OCTOBER 29:  Quarterback Adam Fitch #16 of Air Force passes against Brigham Young University during the second quarter October 29, 2005 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah. Fitch replaced Shaun Carney who cut his left hand and had to leave the game.  (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
George Frey/Getty Images
Jake SchallerContributor IDecember 3, 2016

A year ago when Air Force accepted a bid to the 2008 Armed Forces Bowl, Falcons coach Troy Calhoun noted that “if we could go to this bowl 10 straight years, we would be very, very pleased.”

The Falcons are one step closer.

Air Force on Sunday accepted an invitation to the Armed Forces Bowl for the third year in a row. And for the second year in a row, the Falcons will face Houston of Conference-USA.

Including a 2008 regular season meeting, this will be Air Force’s third game against Houston in the last two seasons. And it will be the Falcons’ fifth game in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the last three seasons.

“Fort Worth has become a second home to us,” Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh said. “And we’re definitely excited to come back.”

Not all Air Force fans are likely to share his excitement. They probably would have liked a different setting for the bowl or, at the very least, a different opponent.

But if—as they say in boxing—styles make fights, the Falcons' and Cougars' contrasting styles should make for a game fans will want to see.

Houston boasts the nation’s top passing attack, averaging 450.0 aerial yards per game—nearly 70 more than the second-ranked team. Air Force, meanwhile, leads the nation in passing defense, allowing just 148.7 passing yards per game.

The Falcons, of course, are coming off their worst defensive performance of the season. In their regular season finale at BYU on Nov. 21, they gave up a season-high 498 yards, including 377 through the air. But while those stats likely will have the Cougars licking their chops, Air Force looks at its game with Houston as a chance to make up for the performance at BYU.

“It definitely gives us a chance at redemption to show what this team is really about,” senior nose guard Ben Garland said.

Still, Air Force’s defense will be facing its toughest test of the season. Houston quarterback Case Keenum has completed an astonishing 71.0 percent of his 659 passes for a nation-leading 5,449 yards, a nation-leading 43 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. And he has plenty of options when he drops back to pass, as the Cougars are “absolutely loaded at the skill positions,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said.

“It’s as good a passing attack as you’re going to see in college football,” he added.

So can Air Force even slow the Cougars?

The Falcons have as talented and athletic a secondary as they’ve had in about a decade. And Garland’s strength, size and ability up front should allow them to play nickel and dime without getting gashed by the run.

But the Falcons’ best defense will be long, time-consuming drives by its offense. One of the major reasons Air Force was so dominated by BYU was its offense’s inability to pick up first downs and sustain drives. So look for Air Force to take its time and pound the ball at a Houston defense that ranks 112th in the nation against the run.

And when the Cougars do have the ball, the battle between Keenum and Co. and the Falcons’ defense will probably make fans forget that they’re watching a repeat.

“We love this opportunity to be able to go against such a powerful offense,” Garland said. “They have great weapons, and it gives us the ability to show what our defense can do.”

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